The Smart Grid – Modern Electrical Infrastructure

When we talk about the emerging Smart Grid there comes with the topic an array of exciting and new technologies; Micro-Grids, Distributed Generation, Smart Meters, Load Shifting, Demand Response, Electric Vehicles with Battery Storage for Demand Response, and more.  Recent development in Renewable Energy sources has been driven by concerns over Climate Change, allowing for unprecedented growth in residential and commercial PV Solar Panel installations.


Figure 1:  Redwood High School in Larkspur, CA installed a 705kW SunPower system that’s projected to save $250,000 annually. The carports include EV charging stations for four cars. (1)

Climate Change and burning of fossil fuels are hot topics in the world. Most recently the city of San Francisco has mandated the installation of solar panels on all new buildings constructed under 10 storeys, which will come into effect in 2017 as a measure to reduce carbon emissions.  Currently all new buildings in California are required to set aside 15% of roof area for solar. (2)

“Under existing state law, California’s Title 24 Energy Standards require 15% of roof area on new small and mid-sized buildings to be “solar ready,” which means the roof is unshaded by the proposed building itself, and free of obtrusions. This state law applies to all new residential and commercial buildings of 10 floors or less.

Supervisor Wiener’s ordinance builds on this state law by requiring this 15% of “solar ready” roof area to have solar actually installed. This can take the form of either solar photovoltaic or solar water panels, both of which supply 100% renewable energy.” (3)

Weather and Aging Infrastructure:

Despite an increasing abundance of energy-efficient buildings and other measures, electricity demand has risen by around 10% over the last decade, partly driven by the massive growth of digital device usage and the expanding demand for air conditioning, as summers continue to get hotter in many states.

According to 2013 data from the Department of Energy (DOE), US power grid outages have risen by 285% since records on blackouts began in 1984, for the most part driven by the grid’s vulnerability to unusual and extreme weather events – such as the devastating Hurricane Sandy in 2012 that caused extensive power outages across the East Coast – which are becoming less unusual as the years roll on.

“We used to have two to five major weather events per year from the 50s to the 80s,” said University of Minnesota Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Massoud Amin in a 2014 interview with the International Business Times.

“Between 2008 and 2012, major outages caused by weather increased to 70 to 130 outages per year. Weather used to account for about 17% to 21% of all root causes. Now, in the last five years, it’s accounting for 68% to 73% of all major outages.” (4)

How is the Smart Grid so different from the traditional electrical grid?

The established model of providing power to consumers involves the supply of electricity generated from a distant source and transmitted at high voltage to sub-stations local to the consumer, refer to Figure 2.  The power plants that generate the electricity are mostly thermo-electric (coal, gas and nuclear power), with some hydro-electric sources (dams and reservoirs) and most recently wind farms and large solar installations.

“The national power grid that keeps America’s lights on is a massive and immensely valuable asset. Built in the decades after the Second World War and valued today at around $876bn, the country’s grid system as a whole connects electricity from thousands of power plants to 150 million customers through more than five million miles of power lines and around 3,300 utility companies.” (4)

power_fig1 Old Grid Model.gif

Figure 2:  Existing Transmission and Distribution Grid Structure within the Power Industry (5)

The (Transmission & Distribution) market supplies equipment, services and production systems for energy markets. The initial stage in the process is converting power from a generation source (coal, nuclear, wind, etc.) into a high voltage electrical format that can be transported using the power grid, either overhead or underground. This “transformation” occurs very close to the source of the power generation.

The second stage occurs when this high-voltage power is “stepped-down” by the use of switching gears and then controlled by using circuit breakers and arresters to protect against surges. This medium voltage electrical power can then be safely distributed to urban or populated areas.

The final stage involves stepping the power down to useable voltage for the commercial or residential customer.  In short, while power generation relates to the installed capacity to produce energy from an organic or natural resource, the T&D space involves the follow up “post-power generation production” as systems and grids are put in place to transport this power to end users. (5)

The Smart Grid is an evolution in multiple technologies which in cases is overlaying or emerging from the existing grid.  New generating facilities such as wind power or solar installations which may be small or local to a municipal or industrial user are being tied into the existing grid infra-structure.  In some cases residential PV Solar systems are being tied into the Grid with some form of agreement to purchase excess energy, in some cases at rates favorable to the installer, depending on the utility and region.

Another characteristic of the evolving Smart Grid is in communication technology and scalability.  Use of wifi protocols for communication between parts of the system allow for new processes and access to resources which were previously unavailable.  Ability to control systems to defer demand to non-peak hours within a building as one example.

Microgrids, smaller autonomous systems servicing a campus of buildings or larger industry,  may plug into a larger City-wide Smart Grid in a modular manner.  In the event of a catastrophic event such as a hurricane or earthquake the Smart Grid offers users resiliency through multiple sources of energy supply.

Distributed Generation includes a number of different and smaller scale energy sources into the mix.  The newer, small scale Renewable Energy projects which are being tied to the electrical grid as well as other technologies such as Co-Generation, Waste To Energy facilities, Landfill Gas Systems, Geothermal and the like.  As growth continues there needs to be ways to control and manage these multiple energy sources into the grid.  Also increased needs to maintain privacy, isolate and control systems, and prevent unauthorized access and control.  This is leading to growth in  Energy Management and Security Systems.


Figure 3:  An artist’s rendering of the massive rail used in the ARES power storage project to store renewable energy as gravitational potential energy. Source: ARES North America (6)

Energy Storage is emerging as necessary in the Smart Grid due to fluctuations in source supply of energy, especially Solar and Wind Power, and the intermittent and cyclical nature of user demand.   The existing grid does not have the need for energy storage systems as energy sources were traditionally large power stations which generally responded to anticipated need during the course of the day.

As more Renewable Energy systems go online the need for storage will grow.  Energy Storage in its various forms will also enable Load Shifting or Peak Shaving strategies for economic gains in user operations.  These strategies are already becoming commercially available for buildings to save the facility operators rate charges by limiting demand during peak periods at higher utility rates.


Figure 4:  Effect of Peak Shaving using Energy Storage  (6) 

Peak-load shifting is the process of mitigating the effects of large energy load blocks during a period of time by advancing or delaying their effects until the power supply system can readily accept additional load. The traditional intent behind this process is to minimize generation capacity requirements by regulating load flow. If the loads themselves cannot be regulated, this must be accomplished by implementing energy storage systems (ESSs) to shift the load profile as seen by the generators (see Figure 4).

Depending on the application, peak-load shifting can be referred to as “peak shaving” or “peak smoothing.” The ESS is charged while the electrical supply system is powering minimal load and the cost of electric usage is reduced, such as at night. It is then discharged to provide additional power during periods of increased loading, while costs for using electricity are increased. This technique can be employed to mitigate utility bills. It also effectively shifts the impact of the load on the system, minimizing the generation capacity required. (6)

Challenges with chemical storage systems such as batteries are scale and cost.  Currently pumped hydro is the predominant method of storing energy from intermittent sources providing 99% of global energy storage. (7)


Figure 5:  Actual Savings accrued due to Demand Response Program  (8) 

Demand Response (DR) is another technology getting traction in the Smart Grid economy. As previously mentioned Energy Management and Security Systems are “…converging with Energy Storage technology to make DR a hot topic.  First, the tools necessary to determine where energy is being stored, where it is needed and when to deliver it is have developed over decades in the telecommunications sector.  Secondly, the more recent rush of advanced battery research is making it possible to store energy and provide the flexibility necessary for demand response to really work. Mix that with the growing ability to generate energy on premises through solar, wind and other methods (Distributed Generation) and a potent new distributed structure is created.” (9)

Demand response programs provide financial incentives to reduce energy consumption during peak periods of energy demand. As utilities and independent system operators (ISOs) are pressured to keep costs down and find ways to get as many miles as they can out of every kilowatt, demand response programs have gained popularity. (8)


Figure 6:  The Demonstration Project 2’s Virtual Power Plant (10) 

Virtual Power Plant: When an increasing share of energy is produced by renewable sources such as solar and wind, electricity production can fluctuate significantly. In the future there will be a need for services which can help balance power systems in excess of what conventional assets will be able to provide. Virtual power plants (VPPs) are one of the most promising new technologies that can deliver the necessary stabilising services.  (11)

In the VPP model an energy aggregator gathers a portfolio of smaller generators and operates them as a unified and flexible resource on the energy market or sells their power as system reserve.

VPPs are designed to maximize asset owners’ profits while also balancing the grid. They can match load fluctuations through forecasting, advance metering and computerized control, and can perform real-time optimization of energy resources.

“Virtual power plants essentially represent an ‘Internet of Energy,’ tapping existing grid networks to tailor electricity supply and demand services for a customer,” said Navigant senior analyst Peter Asmus in a market report. The VPP market will grow from less than US $1 billion per year in 2013 to $3.6 billion per year by 2020, according to Navigant’s research — and one reason is that with more variable renewables on the grid flexibility and demand response are becoming more crucial.  (12)


Figure 7:   Example of a Microgrid System With Loads, Generation, Storage and Coupling to a Utility Grid (13)

Microgrids:  Microgrids are localized grids that can disconnect from the traditional grid to operate autonomously and help mitigate grid disturbances to strengthen grid resilience (14).  The structure of a microgrid is a smaller version of the smart grid formed in a recursive  hierarchy where multiple local microgrids may interconnect to form the larger smart grid which services a region or community.


The convergence of aging existing infrastructure, continued growth in populations and electrical demand and concerns over climate change have lead to the emerging smart grid and it’s array of new technologies.  This trend is expected to continue as new growth and replacement will be necessary for an aging electrical grid system, from the larger scope transmission systems and utilities, to smaller scale microgrids.  These systems will become integrated and modular, almost plug-and-play, with inter-connectivity and control through wireless internet protocols.



Related Blog Posts:

Other Related Articles and Websites:


One thought on “The Smart Grid – Modern Electrical Infrastructure


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s