What are the advantages of a smart grid?

Imagine electricity grids that can communicate with each other, giving us reliable information and allowing managers to remotely operate energy supply across an entire country efficiently and reliably. This is no longer the stuff of fantasy, and although the technology is still in its infancy, smart grids are becoming an increasingly important part of energy management.

What is the advantage of using a smart grid?

Smart grids contain sensors that measure and transmit data to automatically adjust electricity flows according to supply and demand. Energy managers can use this information to adjust the grid and respond to problems in real time, making managing the grid far more efficient and improving fault detection without the need for technicians.

The grid also enters people’s homes by communicating with smart power meters, which can turn on appliances during periods of surplus, when electricity is cheaper. This means smart grids can:

  • Reduce emissions
  • Reduce fuel costs
  • Integrate different sources of renewable energy into a single grid
  • Provide instant feedback on energy production and consumption
  • Make diagnosing faults seamless
  • Provide energy according to demand, making it more efficient

A smart grid integrates various different technologies, including communications systems, smart meters, sensors and measurement devices, smart power generation devices, phasor measurement units and power system automation technologies, including AI.

What do smart grids mean for sustainability?

With the focus increasingly turning to renewable energy, smart grids are an important part of managing these typically less reliable sources of power. Since, for instance, solar panels can’t generate energy during the night-time, smart grids can store power and release it according to the demand a grid is facing.

This guarantees a reliable power supply, which is good for the environment, too. By storing surplus energy generated by renewable sources previously considered unreliable, smart grids can help countries wean themselves off fossil fuels.

By measuring energy supply, power can be provided exactly when and where it is needed, making the smart grid a far less wasteful way of supplying energy. This in turn reduces fuel use and cost.

What are the applications of smart grids?

Temporary smart grids also exist, and they’re powering some of our most popular sporting events. Enel, an Italian renewable energy provider, has partnered with Siemens to develop a portable, scalable smart grid to be used alongside Formula E events in urban destinations. It includes solar panels, generators and intelligent battery storage, and is designed to reduce the sport’s reliance on local power grids.

Belgium’s Pukkelpop Festival, which attracts 150,000 visitors, used a decentralised energy production system, utilising locally-generated solar energy and biofuel to power the event. Any energy that went unused in one area was distributed to other parts of the site.

There are currently a number of ongoing projects to create national smart grids in India and the United States. Proposed by President Obama, it would link America’s local smart grids to unified national infrastructure.

In India, where electricity supply can be far more unreliable than in the developed world, the National Smart Grid Mission has been designed to make the country’s power infrastructure more cost effective, responsive and reliable by connecting the country’s energy network to a centralised system. The hope is that the Indian government will be able to guarantee a 24/7 power supply to the entire country for the first time.

What are the challenges of smart grids?

One of the main concerns is security. Smart electrical grids offer increased optimisation of power networks, but this connectivity leaves them vulnerable to cyberattacks. Cybercriminals have already infiltrated the US electrical grid on several occasions, and in 2015 hackers committed a large-scale cyberattack on the Ukrainian power grid, leaving 230 thousand people without electricity for up to six hours.

Nonetheless, smart grids represent a significant opportunity. Their continued adoption over the next few years will result in lower prices and reduced carbon emissions – and as India’s project demonstrates, a more reliable electricity supply where previously.

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