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How smart grid technology could protect your electricity supply

Jordan Smith
By Jordan Smith December 6th, 2021
For business

What is a smart grid?

A smart grid has the infrastructure to manage electricity flow and improve efficiency and grid resilience. It relies on computers and sensors to help the grid’s operations secure a steady power supply and prevent blackouts.

Computer technology is becoming more necessary due to the variable nature of power generation. Renewable energy sources like wind and solar energy don’t supply power to the grid as steadily as a traditional power plant driven by fossil fuels. One way to compensate for this is to build out energy storage capabilities. Energy storage sites can keep surplus energy in reserve for use when wind turbines or solar panels don’t produce as much. Lithium-ion batteries are the best-known example of energy storage. But, electric vehicles will start to play an important role in storing energy as their availability expands.

Managing a grid with all these features will become difficult. Decisions will focus on more than increasing or decreasing the output from a power plant to match demand. The grid will also need to switch directions, drawing on energy from EVs or batteries when the supply drops below the required level. When parts of the grid are damaged, or blackouts occur, smart grids can identify local energy sources to keep the lights on.

Accomplishing these tasks depends on strong communication between all potential energy-providing appliances on the grid. Ben Proposki of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory explains that smart grid technology monitors in real-time how much energy is available in storage and how much each home or appliance requires to run. Describing the process of connecting an EV or battery to a smart grid, he says, “You just plug it in and somehow it automatically talks to its nearest neighbors. It says, `Hey, I just want to let you know I’m out here. I can provide these kinds of services back‘.”

How could smart grid technology help?

Industry experts believe smart grids could help limit power disruptions. Outages and blackouts have risen over recent years. This trend is due in part to more extreme weather events linked to climate change.

One prominent recent example was the Texas winter storm. Cold temperatures forced large quantities of natural gas, coal, and renewable power generation offline. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) responded by ordering rolling blackouts. Reports circulated of empty commercial skyscrapers in downtown Houston continuing to receive power. Meanwhile, nearby residential areas were cut off. Advocates argue that a smart grid could have redirected the power supply to residential customers. This intervention may have kept the Texas electricity supply intact.

Isabel Beltran, an energy resilience expert with the Rockefeller Foundation, explained during the Texas storm, “One way to mitigate the impact of climate events on critical energy supplies is by harnessing distributed renewable energy networks. These can provide safe, reliable and locally-based power that is resilient in the face of disasters.” Smart grids offer “a vision for a more sustainable energy system in the future,” she noted.

James McMahon of Charles River Associates, a global consultancy firm, added, “Traditional grid planning processes are no longer acceptable as flexible use of the grid is required. A digitized grid that supports a diverse and distributed set of resources is needed to manage through uncertainty.”

What does this mean for me?

Smart grid investments will impact you as an energy consumer by ensuring a more reliable supply of power. They also offer the prospect of an electricity system that can cope better with unpredictable weather patterns. That will make your day-to-day life easier and protect you better against the harmful risks posed by outages.

Smart grid technology could also give you more control over how you use your power. For example, smart meters let you decide when to use household appliances to take advantage of the cheapest electricity prices.

Jordan Smith is a writer and researcher with expertise in renewable energy and deregulated energy markets. Jordan has written extensively on the deregulated energy market in Texas and the challenges confronted in the clean energy transition, and conducted research projects within the energy industry. Further articles by Jordan can be found at SaveOnEnergy.com.

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