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Updated: October 15, 2013 12:53 IST

Tech convergence can make the smart grid a reality

C. Balasubramanya
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C. Balasubramanya
C. Balasubramanya

The term ‘convergence’ aptly describes some important smart grid trends and technology options. Grid modernisation is tremendously influenced by the convergence of information technologies (IT) into what is typically known as OT (operations technologies) that manage traditional utility power grid operations.

One result is that formerly non-communicative equipment such as energy meters and distribution transformers can transmit and receive data for remote monitoring and control. Business intelligence and data analytics solutions long available in other business sectors are now being deployed by utilities to support proactive grid management. The benefits of IT/OT convergence include reduced costs and carbon footprints and improved grid reliability through intelligent maintenance programs.

The convergence of IT with materials science research is anticipated to improve energy storage technologies that are vital to the smart grid. With funding assistance from the U.S. Department of Energy, scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and other centres have been compiling data about materials to improve predictability and design of new materials. The results, so far, include acceleration of previously time-consuming and expensive iterative processes to develop and modify the properties of materials to improve performance. Imagine how Thomas Edison would have enjoyed this IT/materials science convergence to develop the incandescent light bulb. He would have benefited from a database to identify the most practical, reliable, and cost-effective materials. Instead, as he famously stated: “We now know a thousand ways not to build a light bulb.”

Similar technology convergences can have a positive impact on energy efficiency in improved integrated circuits and system on chip (SoC) technologies and designs. Chips that produce less wasted energy in the form of heat require less energy for cooling. Components that are energy-efficient result in appliances and electronics that have a reduced total cost of ownership (TCO) for consumers and businesses.

Innovative ideas

Convergence also manifests in the form of ideas. As the smart grid in many ways is simply multiple applications of machine-to-machine (M2M) communications, there is increasing recognition that electric, gas, and water distribution grids can intelligently interact with the cities they support. The convergence of smart grids with smart cities is evidenced by deployment of streetlights that can sense how much light is really needed and therefore reduce overall electricity consumption. There are some innovative ideas and technologies applied to automobile parking to reduce street congestion and cut CO2 emissions.

Of course, smart cities require smart residential and commercial buildings, which must transition to provide healthy, safe, and productive environments for occupants with the least draw of resources for heat, light, and water. This objective requires the convergence of IT technologies into building construction to improve management of energy consumption, and increased understanding of how building structures themselves can actively generate electricity and/or reduce energy consumption. Aside from the research in materials sciences to improve energy storage technologies, other discoveries will play significant roles in making more buildings truly zero net energy, meaning buildings will not consume more energy than they can produce on their own.

These are just a few examples of convergence occurring to make the smart grid a reality. Some of these convergences will be quite disruptive to existing technologies and business models, but that is the nature of innovation. In the end, our global societies benefit from reduced carbon emissions, reduced operating costs, improved local production/storage of energy and improved consumption management for electricity, gas, and water.

(The author is a freelance consultant and online teaching professor.)

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