Smart Grid – When Is it Smart? Part 2

Last week I wrote about Smart Grid Rule #1:  You know you have a Smart Grid when you have choices about the type of energy you want to purchase at a price that is acceptable to you – you can buy pure solar or wind-produced electricity, a mixture of any clean energies, or the cheapest electricity without regard to its origin. 

This week the focus moves from generation to transmission.  As electricity consumers, we typically don’t think about transmission until there’s a problem.  For example, many Californians were worried a couple of years ago when the wildfires consumed massive square miles of land that were close to high voltage transmission lines.  Had those been damaged or destroyed, a local fire, a disaster by itself, would have become a much bigger disaster if regional brownouts or blackouts had occurred.

The great blackout of 2003 in the Northeast was caused by transmission failures and the inability of utilities and the RTOs (Regional Transmission Organizations) to understand what was happening and why it was happening.   That blackout cost $6B and 11 lives.   Just as management of local highway grids is much improved with cameras and road sensors to plan proactive measures to reduce traffic congestion, the ability to have some awareness about the health of the transmission system is an important characteristic of a Smart Grid. 

Here’s some Smart Grid jargon for you – synchrophasors.   The definition in the Smart Grid Dictionary is “Precise grid measurements (synchronized phasor) that deliver real time data about the power system.  The information is obtained from monitors called phasor measurement units (PMUs).  Aggregating this time-stamped or synchronized data is useful to delivering a comprehensive view of an interconnect system.  These measurements are used for wide area management of grid operations.”   

Synchrophasors use GPS (Global Positioning System) technology to time-stamp their measurements, making them ideal for wide area situational awareness (WASA).  This situational awareness is so important that the federal government’s Department of Energy (DOE), the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) and industry players are funding a collaborative initiative to improve wide-area power system reliability and visibility through measurement and control using synchrophasor technologies.  This initiative, NASPI (North American SynchroPhasor Initiative), includes large-scale prototypes and regional demonstrations to research, develop, and deploy other uses of this new data.   Some utilities are already using PMUs for their regional real-time grid operations. 

In essence, the NASPI initiative will make the overall transmission system more intelligent because there will be more data about its overall status that can be used to take precautions or corrective actions.  It will also help pave the way for more renewable energy production on the grid.  Two important renewables discussed last week – solar and wind – are intermittent sources of power.  The sun only shines in the day, and only on days of good weather.  The wind is also predictably fickle.  PMUs can also assist in real-time grid operations so utilities can make fast adjustments when the clouds roll in or the wind unexpectedly calms. 

Another problem in our aging transmission system is that the existing technologies typically lose around 10% of the electricity energy in transmission.  Obviously, if we can improve technologies to reduce these losses, that’s a good thing from financial and environmental perspectives.  The Federal government is engaged in RD&D (Research, Development, and Deployment) work to improve power line capacity and efficiency. 

Finally, we don’t have enough transmission capacity, and will need to build more power lines to accommodate growing populations and new sources of generation – such as solar thermal and wind power – which are remote to the populations that will use that electricity.  This will be the subject of next week’s blog. 

 Smart Grid Rule #2:  You know you have a Smart Grid when the transmission of your electricity is thoroughly monitored by PMUs to deliver critical situational awareness and intelligent management of the grid to improve its operations and efficiency, and when transmission lines are updated to the latest technologies to reduce line losses.