There's enough talk about upgrading to a new "smart grid" that the causal reader generally concludes our existing power distribution grid is, well, not so smart. And that's not far from the truth. As it exists now, the grid we use to move electrical power from where it's generated to where it's needed is big and complex, and it takes a huge amount of effort and intelligence to manage. But the grid itself is inflexible, vulnerable to disruption, and fragile.
An increasing number of companies are working to change that.
Most current grid technology is not a whole lot different from the technology that utilities used in the early- to mid-20th Century. It's pretty good at getting large, steady amounts of power from centralized generating stations to the substations that feed that power into local distribution grids. It's not so good at contending with widely varying sources of power, some of which fluctuate in response to demand, or due to renewable energy intermittency (say clouds forming over solar panels or wind dying down). It's also not that great at contending with the increasing amount of power being generated on the distribution end -- as in rooftop solar. And as we are reminded time and again, our grid is susceptible to massive outages caused by single points of failure.
Gridco Systemsis one of a few companies that want to make our power grid more resilient, able to route power around damage the way the Internet routes information around a downed hub. To do this, they're working to provide utilities with digital control systems to be placed throughout the grid network.
As the firm says on its website,
Since the invention of the transistor in 1947, advances in power electronics have rendered benefits in almost every industry imaginable. Audio amplifiers, cellular communications, microwave ovens, plasma TVs, compact battery chargers, fluorescent lamps, hybrid electric vehicles, electric trains, and converters for photo-voltaic or wind generation systems are just a few of the products and applications enabled, in large part, by advances in power electronics... Despite this broad adoption, power electronics presently have only limited application within utility-scale power distribution systems.
In other words, Gridco wants to put the kind of technology we use in almost every other aspect of our lives in service maintaining the power grid. According to the firm, its technology, now being sold to utilities, allows power companies to...
dynamically, adaptively, and precisely regulate voltage... compensate for harmonics, and rapidly contain line faults. The result is greater system reliability and security, enhanced customer service, higher efficiency, and stable integration of emerging resources including distributed generation, plug-in electric vehicles, and energy storage.
As reporter Katie Fehrenbacher notes in a post yesterday on GigaOm, Gridco Services' products are more replacements for older tech than accessories, which may slow implementation of the firm's vision somewhat:
The clear draw back of this technology is that because it's a replacement product, meant to replace the current old mechanical transformers, utilities -- and their rate approval boards -- might take awhile to justify the investment.
GreentechMedia's Jeff St. John offers a take on products by competing firm Varentec, which might just sidestep some of those obstacles. Varentec's "Edge of Network Grid Optimization device, or ENGO, offers utilities a way for implement digital control to the grid on a more piecemeal basis, by installing digital control of those parts of the grid that need it most -- remote corners of grid circuits far from substations, where voltage tends to be harder to control. Varentec's ENGO senses the power in a line in real time, and can relay that information to a central controller or make voltage adjustments on the fly on its own, or both.
As St. John points out, regulating grid voltage more efficiently is generally thought to offer savings of between two and six percent of total grid power. That's as much as 3,000 megawatts savable just on the California ISO grid -- significantly more power than is generated by the behemoth coal-fired Navajo Generating Station, and potentially reducing CO2 emissions by 25 million tons or more.
And we get a more reliable grid in the bargain, one which makes it easier to incorporate rooftop solar into the grid. What's not to like?