Electrical grid: The concept

Today’s grid of large, centralized power plants and extensive systems of wires and switches has served us well and will continue to in the future.

Anderson and Boulanger (Mechanical Engineering, March 2004) envision a system that is modified to accommodate a two-way flow of information as opposed to the one-way transmission of power. They provide numerous examples of how the system is already being modified.

Utilities can locate standby generators in office buildings and public buildings to meet peak power demands. When additional electricity is needed, backup generators are automatically put into serve. Similarly, storage devices such as large-scale battery banks and flywheels can be decentralized throughout the service territory and automatically called on to provide electricity during peak demand.

Sensors can be embedded in generators and power lines to provide a stream of real time information to rapidly diagnose and correct problems. Automated measurements of power lines can determine when they are about to become overloaded, allowing for timely adjustments to avoid the problem.

Demand can be reduced by making more use of digital controls to monitor and adjust the efficiency with which energy is used in buildings and appliances. Automated digital controls can also manage multiple small-scale energy resources such as solar modules, wind turbines, micro turbines and fuel cells. Micro turbines and fuel cells release heat, which can be captured to meet building heating and air conditioning needs.

Two-way communication between the power providers and customers can be used to alert customers to high energy prices during peak demand. Customers can reduce their electrical usage or provide power from their own generators. Signals can also be sent to customers to cut usage when the grid is approaching overload and potential collapse.

Computer chips can be embedded in home appliances to allow the utility to automatically cut electrical consumption of designated appliances in the homes of cooperating customers.

The Chicago Center for Neighborhood Technology already offers an experimental program for participants based on real time information regarding electrical consumption that has reduced energy bills around 10 percent for participants.

Electrical equipment is designed to operate best at standard voltage. However, grid voltage can vary from the ideal. Voltage regulators can be placed in strategic grid locations ensuring the appropriate voltage reaches the consumer. Such devices can lower electrical consumption and extend the life of the appliances.

Micro grids are another energy-saving innovation that operate independently of the existing grid. As free-standing DC systems, they provide power to digital equipment while avoiding the energy-wasting need to convert AC grid power to DC. Detroit has an installation in operation. A Rockford architect has cited literature describing homes designed to function on DC power. Given all the electronic devices in the modern home that convert AC to DC power this could be a future trend. One local homeowner uses an energy-saving DC motor to power his furnace fan.

While many aspects of the smart grid are already in use, no major grid service has systematically put all the elements into service. If they were in wide use, new technologies would improve grid reliability, costs would be contained, and efficiency and renewable energy sources could meet an increasing proportion of our needs.

The scale of the changes envisioned would challenge the industry’s traditional business model. Incentives will be needed to encourage acceptance of the changes. The evolving regional model of electrical production and distribution also presents new challenges to consumers and political leaders. In essence, what has been described in these last two columns is an engineering perspective on how our electric system should be redesigned to meet our future energy needs.

Actions taken by technological elites and business interests have important impacts on our lives. The more distant and complex these systems become, the more difficult it becomes for consumers to influence these decisions. Chicago, working with Commonwealth Edison, has already initiated actions to return some energy decisions to the local level.

From the Feb. 8-14, 2006, issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!