Imagine Life without Electricity

Imagine life without electricity

Well, first off you wouldn’t be reading this; in fact the internet wouldn’t exist at all. Business systems would fail, emergency services would become futile, there would be limited transport, limited communication, and most of the modern conveniences that you take for granted would simply disappear.

Everything that makes life so straightforward (relatively!!) would simply not exist.

Fortunately as of May 2012, I have not really suffered from this problem; the odd power cut has resulted in reading by candlelight, but even that had a romantic charm to it.

With demand continuing to increase and supply not reacting fast enough to plug this energy gap the world is coming up with an ingenious way to help.

Development of the Electric Grid We Use Today

The electricity grid that we know and rely on today was first created in the 1890’s, when Nikola Tesla highlighted the advantages of using alternating current to transport electricity. Initially, in the early 20th century, the grid started out as lots of local grids but by the 1960’s these local grids had developed and become so interlinked that it appeared as if there was one massive grid in the UK, with thousands of power generating plants to produce the electricity needed.

At this time, the majority of power stations were gas, oil and coal powered, but as time went on and demand increased, nuclear power plants began to be built (near large sources of water required for cooling) along with large hydroelectric developments.

It was not until the end of the 20th Century that electricity demand patterns were established.

Electricity currently cannot be stored effectively unfortunately, and each type of power station takes time to switch on and off. Nuclear power is the slowest to turn on and off, so nowadays this provides a large percentage of the base electricity in the grid. However, electricity derived from gas turbines can be turned on and off relatively quickly, so this type of power generation was initially used to help mirror electricity demand.

Forward wind another 20 years or so to 2012

Admittedly we still rely on coal, gas and nuclear electricity to power most of the country, but there a number of other electricity sources that have since been added to the electricity mix (although these produce intermittent power when the sun is shining, when the wind is blowing etc). Demand in the UK has also continued to increase, and pressure is forever mounting to drive us get our electricity from cleaner sources. The final issue though, is that demand for electricity is due to outstrip supply as nuclear plants are decommissioned over the coming years and there is nothing (currently) in the pipeline to take up the slack.

So where does that leave us? Well not in great shape admittedly!! However all is not lost. We are holding an ace card, we have information. Lots of it. At the tip of our fingertips.

If I am out and about, I can now see how far my bus is from the bus stop. If I see a product in a shop, I can scan the barcode and check where in my local area I can get the same product at a cheaper price. I can use the internet to book a flight, do all of my shopping, video call my friends across the world. The internet has transformed the way we live, and it has only been about for the last 15 years or so (in the form that we know it now).

The Smart Grid

So we have increasing electricity demand as populations grow, business expands and people are living more energy intensive lives. There is also now more risk to the electric grid than ever before, it is getting old, it is more difficult to continue scaling it up, and it is under constant threat from terrorists.

The smart grid is the term used to describe the overhaul of the electric grid. Governments and businesses are investing lots of capital to make the grid more reactive to supply and demand, and this is being driven by 4 interrelated functions.

    • Power Generation
    • Monitoring
    • Control
    • Applications

As I have mentioned previously we are moving away from the large centralized energy generating power plants to smaller distributed sources of renewable energy. This has both benefits and drawbacks. The major drawback is that the electricity from these sources tends to be made intermittently, so for solar PV, only when the sun shines, or for wind turbines when the wind blows. However, you can build these smaller power sources closer to where the electricity is needed, reducing the transmission losses associated with the older centralised plants, in fact houses across the globe are now creating their own electricity and selling it back to the grid (effectively acting as tiny power stations). In addition, the electricity produced from these sources is less polluting, which may help in some way our fight against global warming.

Monitoring has increased dramatically; it is not simply now that once a quarter your energy company reads your meter, sees that it has has clocked an additional 1000 kWh and sends out the bil. If advanced metering infrastructure is installed, these utility companies can get an instantaneous view of information including voltage profile (both maximum and minimum), instantaneous current, kWh used per day, the load profile etc. In addition the utility companies can get instant feedback on the health of their electricity transmission gear, for example transformers in sub-stations, so problems can be identified and rectified quicker than ever before.

In the early 1900’s, the energy grid appeared to be a series of local grids, and actually it appears that we may once again be headed back to that situation. It seems that our end goal is to see an increase in smaller electricity producing power plants that adapt to meet the needs to small local communities, and therefore we need better control than ever to match the supply and demand, known as micro grid control. It is almost as if the grid is now alive, underutilized components can be put to work, easing the stress of overworked parts of the grid, while it can easily adapt to incoming power fluctuations, outages and so forth.

Finally, we need standardised intelligent applications across all of these micro grids. With more information being delivered across the internet to suppliers, they have the ability to use this information to become more efficient in the way they supply electricity.

What Is Holding Mass Adoption Of The Smart Grid Back

As I mentioned previously at the beginning of this post, it is almost unthinkable to get by without electricity. The smart grid, despite working well on small scale tests areas is yet to be tested on a really grand scale, and unfortunately the people at the top are unwilling to work with ‘potentially’ life changing technology. Keeping the lights on is the key priority of all leaders in Government, and while at the moment that is the case, it may not be for that much longer.

Utility companies have based their revenue models on dated regulatory and rate-making frameworks, so they are in no way incentivised to adopt smart grid technologies.

The equipment to produce a large scale Smart grid is expensive; there are high upfront capital costs associated with building a smart grid, and despite there being massive potential efficiency savings so the technology would pay back quickly, companies are unwilling in this turbulent world economy to stick their neck out.

The final factor that I think holds back mass adoption of the smart grid is security. It is correct to assume that by implementing this technology we potentially could adapt to power outages resulting from terrorist action, by rerouting electricity from other areas. The security issue here is actually to do with the data; as we have seen over the last 10 years or so, the internet is a haven for worms and viruses that can bring down computer systems. Security needs to be at a sufficient level to ensure that the electric grid is not at risk, or at least the risk is managed, because as I have suggested earlier, I’d imagine the romance of reading by candle light would quickly fade!!

Why I Would Love To See the Implementation of The Smart Grid

1. A smart grid would act as an intelligent, self-healing grid that anticipates and prevents disruptions and dramatically reduces costly blackouts and power disturbances.

2. The smart Grid would also be much more economical, ensuring that supply accurately met demand, so no electricity is wasted (expensive), but there would always be a sufficient volume (to prevent outages). In addition the potential that the electricity you are using is being produced on your neighbour’s house means that transmission wastage will be limited.

3. Finally the smart grid would be cleaner, and it would be easy to bring on line more renewable energy sources that simply plugged into the grid. It would be a psyche change from big centralised polluting power stations, to small cleaner tech generating stations.