AUGUST 2010: John Chambers, CEO of communications giant Cisco, has identified smart grids to be a bigger opportunity than the Internet itself! Not surprising, considering that one day the ‘smart grid’ will pervade the whole world. “We see a world where every significant energy-consuming device will have an IP address—be it a refrigerator, pool pump or plug-in hybrid,” says Sandeep Raina, senior vice president, Cisco.

Though we are nowhere close to that vision today, it serves as a starting point for our exploration of the smart grid. A smart grid is a giant network. It is like a crochet tablecloth—complex yet simple, breathtakingly beautiful and very useful. Various points of power generation, the utility (electricity supply board) and the consumers—all connected by a network—communicate with each other, use the shared information to make intelligent decisions, and sometimes even use the network to control how each other works. Basically, if you add ‘communication, intelligence and automation’ to today’s power distribution and transmission system, you get a smart grid.

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A smart grid is a digital upgrade to the existing electric grid technology that has actually been quite the same for over 100 years. So what are the features of a smart grid? The USA’s Department of Energy describes it quite beautifully…

“Informed, involved, and active consumers—demand response and distributed energy resources.”

“Many distributed energy resources with plug-and-play convenience; focus on renewable energy.”

“Mature, well-integrated wholesale markets, growth of new electricity markets for consumers.”

“Power quality is a priority with a variety of quality/price options—rapid resolution of issues.”

“Greatly expanded data acquisition on grid parameters.”

“Automatically detects and responds to problems—focus on prevention, minimising impact to consumer.”

“Resilient to attack and natural disasters with rapid restoration capabilities.”

A Tata BP Solar spokesperson presenting an introduction to smart grids at a recent IEEE conference in Mysore rightly called it a ‘digital upgrade’ to current power distribution and long-distance transmission systems.

Such a system requires varied technologies and products, representing the convergence of embedded and communication technologies, electrical and electronics engineering, software and more. If orchestrated right, these technologies—collectively known as ‘smart grid’—would help improve reliability of power transmission, reduce downtime, instil transparency in the system, eliminate power losses, detect and fix faults speedily, enable distributed generation of power including non-conventional power sources, and, in general, improve the experience of both the power supplier and the consumer.

There are lots of reasons to implement smart grids and lots of technologies and trends to understand before doing so. Here is a quick round-up of the same.

Smart Tech For A Smart Grid

Integrated communications, sensing and measurement, intelligent devices, advanced control, improved interfaces and decision support…

Asmart grid typically pervades the entire energy distribution system, right from power generation to power consumption. It is not a single technology but a combination of products, technologies, services and ecosystem partners that act at various levels to optimise communications, improve resilience, and reduce the operational cost and complexity of the energy grid.

“The smart grid can be thought of as comprising three layers: the physical power layer (transmission and distribution), the data transport and control layer (communications and control) and the applications layer (applications and services). All these layers have a set function to ensure that the grid is able to meet the challenges we see today and make our future better,” says Vivek Tyagi, country sales manager, Freescale Semiconductor. And each level has various technologies at work.

Consider a sample of the technologies that fuel the smart grid:
• Communication network is the heart of the smart grid. State-of-the-art communication tools such as rugged integrated services routers (ISRs), hardened catalyst switches, and integrated security and software services are used across the network, while communication protocols ranging from radio frequency and Zigbee to optic fibre and GSM/GPRS act as the backbone of the network.
• Data centres play an important role in sharing and segmenting appropriate information across the fabric to help optimise energy distribution.
• Technologies that augment power from various sources before distribution help harness renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power.
• Intelligent monitoring systems keep track of the electricity flowing in the system.
• Power system automation tools use artificial intelligence and analytics to quickly diagnose and solve grid failures and power outages.
• Superconductive transmission lines reduce power loss.
• Automation devices such as fault-passage indicators, auto eclosures, sectionalisers (load-break switches) and automated ring main units improve the efficiency of the system.
• Smart meters, combined with an automated metering infrastructure, help understand patterns in energy consumption (during peak-hours and non-peaks hours, in various localities and so on). Powered by two-way digital communication links, these also help control appliances in the consumer’s household or machines on a factory floor; non-critical equipment can be shut down during peak times and restarted during lean times.
• Embedded control and integrated connectivity is at the heart of a true smart grid. A range of products such as low power 8-bit microcontrollers (MCUs) for gas, water and heat meters; highly-integrated 32-bit MCUs for single- and three hase electric meters; digital signal controllers (DSCs) for power line modems; 32-bit processors for energy gateways, broadband routers and concentrators; acceleration sensors for tamper detection; air-flow or liquid-flow pressure sen-sors for gas, water or heat meters; and ZigBee transceivers combined with MCUs for home area networks are some of the unseen technologies that drive the smart grid!

Smart grid architecture (courtesy: IBM)
Smart grid architecture (courtesy: IBM)
Smart grid building blocks (courtesy: Secure Meters Limited)
Smart grid building blocks (courtesy: Secure Meters Limited)

Almost all these technologies and products are available in India, though not yet put to full use. S. Ramesh, retired chief engineer-electricity, Karnataka Power Transmission Corporation Ltd, and consultant to the Central Power Research Institute (CPRI), who is now working on a pilot smart grid project, informs, “Smart meters are available from SEMS, Larsen & Toubro, etc. Other smart grid devices such as communication devices, intelligent electronic devices (IEDs), automation devices, and control and protection devices are available from ABB, Siemens, Schneider, Cisco, Areva, Easun Reyrolle and many other companies.”

Smart Grids: A Must For India

Smart grids would help India march faster along the path of development. However, implementing smart grids in our country is no mean feat. Why? And what steps has the government taken to overcome these challenges?

“The total installed capacity of power generation in India is about 160 giga-watts (GW) and the target for 2012 is about 200 GW. Our country is facing huge aggregate technical and commercial (AT&C) losses, the major contributions being technical losses, theft, billing and collection,” says Ramesh.

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India’s transmission and distribution losses are amongst the highest in the world, averaging 26 per cent of total electricity production; in some states, the figure is as high as 62 per cent. When non-technical losses such as energy theft are included in the total, average losses are as high as 50 per cent. The financial loss has been estimated at 1.5 per cent of the national GDP, and is growing steadily. Ramesh opines that smart grids, doubtlessly, are the solution to such problems.

“The smart grid is a new way to use a network to optimise the delivery of energy to consumers to manage efficiency, reduce cost and increase reliability,” adds Raina.

Miles to go
However, the mere availability of knowledge and products does not make the implementation of smart grids any easier in a country like India where the power sector is quite a mess. Several impediments lie along the way: inefficiency of the energy system, complex integration of alternative, distributed power sources; lack of common management, visibility and coordinated control; lack of reliability and resilience.

“Another problem in the implementation of smart grids in India is safeguarding our equipment from unsocial elements. Vandalism, sabotage of the system is common. Damaging the meters and other equipment provided on poles and transformers is not uncommon,” says Ramesh.

Possible, with commitment
The Indian government has realised this and taken a major step in the form of the Restructured Accelerated Power Development Reforms Programme (RAP-DRP), which aims to first clear up the existing system to make it amenable for smart grids and then implement smart grids. Various tasks under the programme include consumer indexing, GIS and asset mapping, metering of distribution transformers and feeders, automatic data logging, feeder segregation and ring fencing, IT applications for prompt response to consumer grievances, meter reading, billing and collection, energy audits and establishment of a base line data system. Other tasks include renovation, modernisation and strengthening of 11kV sub-stations, transformers and transformer centres, reconductoring of lines at the 11kV level and below, load bifurcation and balancing, strengthening at 33kV and 66kV levels, and installation of capacitor banks, mobile service centres, etc.

Picture shot by S. Ramesh at Karol Bagh, New Delhi, portrays the current disorderliness in the power sector
Picture shot by S. Ramesh at Karol Bagh, New Delhi, portrays the current disorderliness in the power sector

One step ahead, some smart grid pilots are under way in states like Maharashtra, Karnataka and New Delhi, in association with companies like Larsen & Toubro, Telvent, GE, Cisco, IBM and Tata Power.

The government has also launched a taskforce and a forum for smart grid development. The forum is a non-profit voluntary consortium of public and private stakeholders, research institutions and selected utilities with the objective of accelerating smart grid development in India, while the taskforce is going to be an inter-ministerial group to ensure awareness, coordination and integration of the diverse activities related to smart grid technologies, promotion of smart grid research and development, collaboration on interoperability framework and so on.

This is an overall sign of the country’s commitment towards the cause.

Some of India’s smart grid pilots

North Delhi Power Limited (NDPL) has implemented a smart grid project in association with Tata Power. It uses products such as GE’s PowerOn coupled with automatic metering infrastructure (AMI), and GE’ SmallWorld geographic information system. NDPL seems to have reduced losses from 54 to 18 per cent in the past few years.

Karnataka has planned a pilot at Bengaluru’s Electronic City. A budget of one billion rupees has been assigned, and the project plan was drafted in January this year. The implementation is expected to take two years.

Maharashtra has also planned a project with Larsen & Toubro and Telvent.

Smart Grids Need Smart Homes

Advanced metering infrastructure, smart meters and home area networking are all boring terms to describe what is actually an exciting technological effect—the smart home! Give consumers something like the intelligent in-home device that Intel showcased at the Consumer Electronics Show this year, and they will probably feel more compelled to participate in the smart grid revolution

The full benefits of a smart grid can be reaped only with the cooperation of the consumers. However, consumers are not going to do anything unless they get something in return. New technologies in the space promise to bridge this gap, with ‘smart’ products that will please both the consumer and the utility.

As we have discussed before, the smart grid is actually like a giant supply chain management system for the power sector—it links up the small and large suppliers, the distribution and transmission system, the utility and the consumers. Of these, proactive and cooperative consumers are very important for the success of this whole system. This is because managing technical faults and optimising stuff at the supplier and distributor end is only part of the story. Optimal power supply depends on optimal power consumption, that is, optimisation on the demand side—and this can be done only if the consumers are involved in the process.

Several methods are adopted by utilities in various countries (not many consumer-side measures exist in India, though) to manage the demand—differential pricing, smart meters and so on.

“Even whilst living in the arena of information, we only get to know about our energy consumption after we get the bill in our hands. We still have to place a phone call to the utility if a power failure or outage occurs, and it takes hours to identify and rectify the problem. What if we can govern our electricity bill just by changing the work hours of our appliance, or placing a networked sensor along wires which could locate and report a fault or prevent it from happening in the first place?” asks Priyanka Singh Panwar, senior hardware engineer, Powertech Automation Solutions, which manufactures remote monitoring and control systems.

For all this to happen, the smart grid should manifest in people’s homes too. Panwar explains that in people’s homes, the smart grid should mean detailed information through home energy-monitoring tools. These can be small displays or Web-based programs that give a real-time view of how much energy you are using, which appliances consume the most and how your home compares to others. Such information will give people ideas on how to cut energy bills.

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What is needed to start is a smart meter with two-way communications. A smart meter would give detailed information on usage, and also enable differential pricing—where the consumer would be billed less for power consumed in lean periods and more in peak hours. This is one of the simplest ways of encouraging the consumer to use energy-guzzling appliances like clothes dryers and dishwashers during non-peak hours.

Home area network (HAN) example (courtesy: Rajeev Sharaf)
Home area network (HAN) example (courtesy: Rajeev Sharaf)

At another level, with home networking and smart appliances, it is possible for the smart meter to automatically switch appliances on or off depending on the load and corresponding instructions from the utility. This helps the utility in peak load management. Additionally, the utility saves the many man-days spent in meter readings, line connection and disconnection, etc, as these can be done through the smart meters. Losses due to theft, wrong meter readings, technical errors and so on can also be avoided.

“In total, we can say that AT&C losses could be reduced to a great extent, with improvement in reliability and quality of power supply and reduction of establishment charges and repair and maintenance expenses. With these improvements, there may be a reduction in tariff structure,” says Ramesh.

It is very important that such benefits are passed on effectively to the consumers in order to encourage them to implement home area networking and buy smart appliances—which are auxiliary technologies needed to ensure the effectiveness and evolution of smart grids. A smart meter alone is not enough.

For this to happen, Grid Net’s CEO Ray Bel quips that the innovation has to sync with the “gotta see, gotta have” attitude of customers and not happen at the thoughtful, careful speed of utility-side innovation. Consumers need to be tempted with killer apps, including home appliance control, home security systems, video communications, home energy consumption and pricing, home multimedia system controls and more. “With these goodies, consumers will have a plethora of incentives to check in frequently with their Smart Home centre – to see what’s up, to transact (yup, that’s right: e-commerce right on the ‘fourth screen’) and to make intelligent energy resource decisions,” Bell writes in an article.

There are signs of these dreams materialising soon. For one, the industry is slowly converging on the protocols and standards for smart appliances and home networking. Zigbee, for example, is emerging as a popular standard on this front. Newer applications and smart appliances are also emerging on the scene. GE’s product line is one typical example.

“Home energy management (HEM), enabled by the smart grid, is an extension of smart meter deployments that provide interesting benefits for residential customers and utilities. IDC found that customers reduce overall energy use by 4 to 15 per cent when they receive real-time feedback on power consumption. For utilities, HEM solutions open new opportunities for strengthening customer relationships, managing power loads, defending against new competitors and realising new revenue from value-added services,” says Raina of Cisco, which has launched some solutions in this space.

Cisco’s HEM gives residential consumers the ability to see and understand their energy use—and its costs—in real time. The consumer interface is the Home Energy Controller (HEC), a countertop display with an LCD touchscreen that can communicate with other home devices—such as a smart meter, smart plugs and programmable thermostats—to help optimise in-home energy management. The HEC has the potential to do for residential consumers what hybrid drivers can do each time they sit behind the wheel.

At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, Intel revealed its intelligent in-home device, described as the ‘fourth screen’ for the home (the first three being television, computers and mobile phones). The device is powered by an Intel Atom processor and provides a centralised dashboard manifested on a stylish, technologically-advanced OLED touch screen. It helps the consumers understand their power consumption patterns and automatically schedule and control devices using smart appliances, programmable thermostats, etc.

Industry majors like Microsoft and Google also offer power management solutions. Rumours are that Apple will also be entering this space soon, as it has filed two related patent applications. The proposed energy management system would allow consumers to reduce electricity bills by controlling and maximising how power is allocated to home electronics such as computers, cell phones and even iPods.

Apparently, the home energy management dashboard is not based on any new technology. Data would be transferred through existing home or business wiring with the HomePlug Powerline Network—a plug-in device that essentially turns outlets into high-speed Internet sources. The system would give consumers real-time information on their energy use, how much it costs and the opportunity to do something about it. Whether all this would require a new device or an application that can run on existing ones is not clear yet.

Such innovative devices and solutions that make it fun, exciting and easy for customers to understand and manage their energy consumption would take demand-side management to the next level. To begin with, we could start calling the initiative as ‘smart homes’ rather than in staid technical terms!

Smarter Smart Grids: Looking Into The Future

Current technological developments, research and discussions happening world over indicate that smart grids are going to become smarter than ever before

Homes that give back. One of the key features of a smart grid is its ability to combine power produced from distributed power sources. Hence, theoretically, every home can be producer. If the house is able to produce more energy than it consumes, through solar and other renewable power sources, it can give back to the grid, and get discounts on its bill too. Such an idea was also presented by GE when it demonstrated its vision of a zero net energy house.

Grids that crystal-gaze. Instead of merely reacting fast to extraordinary situations, grids of the future will even be capable of anticipating peaks or troughs in demand and planning the distribution accordingly.

"A segment where we see significant growth are solid-state drives"

Smart grid 2.0. Echelon’s CEO, Robert A. Dolin believes that smart grid technology is more than mere two-way communications and remote meter reading. The Smart Grid 2.0 puts intelligence and communications in devices throughout the grid from distribution equipment (meters, transformers, capacitor banks, etc) to commercial electrical devices (chillers, boilers, air handlers, lighting, etc) and home appliances like electric water heaters, air-conditioners, and rooftop solar arrays. These smart devices can now become a part of the grid, able to interact in real time to changing conditions on the grid.

The Smart Grid 2.0 uses the grid network and the devices connected to it as a communicating, intelligent system for the delivery of additional services and increased operational efficiency, such as demand response programs. Another significant benefit of the Smart Grid 2.0 is asset management. Because of this network infrastructure approach to the smart grid, utilities can see all equipment and how the power lines interconnect that equipment to monitor the health of the systems in real time.

ISPs going out of business. If the broadband-over-power-line goals of smart grid taskforces work out as planned, one day you would just have to connect your computer to a power plug in order to surf the Web! That means, the Internet would reach every nook and corner of the country.

Energy from renewable energy sources. One of the key issues with distributing renewable energy so far has been that such sources sometimes produce less energy and even that is often seasonal, hence not justifying extensive investments in grids. However, smart grids enable such sources to be easily integrated into a flexible transmission and distribution system. Therefore we would really be able to tap the benefits of alternative energy sources, even if it is just a collection of solar panels on a company’s rooftop.

Smart grids that use the cellular network. The power sector in India is held and managed by the government, but in other countries it is not so. One of the main benefits of a smart grid infrastructure is that it enables even small utility providers to prosper—it makes power a free market. Such a market with players large and small is likely to see many low-cost innovations. One such has been demonstrated by a pilot project in Texas, where a small utility has used the cell phone as the mode through which smart meters communicate with the grid. Radio frequency (RF) meshes have so far been used for this purpose in most pilot projects and implementations. The success of this innovative pilot means that the mobile network might challenge this established technology in the near future.

Load-shaping demand-response systems. Schneider, the energy stalwart, predicts that we will soon move out of the current mode of demand-response (DR 1.0) to a more sophisticated one (DR 2.0).

Current systems can manage load shedding or load curtailment (shutting off a device during peak events) and load shifting (a more sophisticated technique that moves loads away from the peaks, by preheating or pre-cooling, delaying activities such as pool pumps, defrost cycles and dishwashers).

But, DR 2.0 can do load shaping, which constantly fine tunes demand in real time to adjust to fluctuations, such as those caused by intermittent renewables. The company feels that DR 2.0 is likely to be highly in demand in the next few years as intermittent renewables become an ever-increasing percentage of total power.

Virtual power grids. There is another highly ambitious and futuristic project from Schneider. A very simple problem led to this innovative idea. Usually, tenants, not the owner, have to bear the electricity bills and hence the latter shows no interest in implementing any power-saving mechanism in the building. To overcome this, Schneider pro-poses to use its expertise to wring out significant efficiencies from large buildings. It will even bear the cost of doing so. Next, the company will offer that reduced demand to power marketers and aggregators. Of the money they make, some will be passed on to the building owners.

Schneider hopes to make money from multiple revenue streams, not just the load curtailment incentives that are part of most smart grid demand-response programmes. It also wants to tap into payments for permanent capacity (permanent efficiency improvements rather than temporary reductions during peak events); programmes for white certificate trading; and even markets for carbon reduction should they materialise in the future. In a commentary by Jesse Berst in smartgridnews.com, it is mentioned that Schneider was able to save 1½ cents per kilowatt hour when it applied the new programme to Rockefeller Center, and plans to apply the same scheme to downtown Chicago’s 200 biggest buildings. The firm thinks it can pull 150 MW out of the current demand of 800 MW.

Low-cost smart meters. The cost of smart meters has been a major hurdle in the way of smart grid implementations in developing countries. However, companies like Freescale Semiconductor and Accent have demonstrated advanced system-on-chip products made especially for smart meters. This would greatly reduce the cost of smart meters.

Smart meters usually have three components: the wide-area-network connection/radio that takes data back to the utility, the home-area-network connection/radio that connects the smart home, and the metrology component that measures power, voltage, current, etc. Reducing the number of processors, by combining several functions into one, will greatly reduce the cost.

Smart grid optimisation. Optimisation is about making the smart grid work best. Some think that such optimisation is more important than smart meters, demand-response management and so on, as it improves the overall functioning of the smart grid. With multi-core processors and greater number-crunching power, intelligent smart meters that can share lots of relevant information with the utility and high-speed communication technologies, optimisation technology is facing a boom time. Several companies such as GRIDiant, Lockheed Martin, Ambient, S&C Electric and even Oracle have major plans in the optimisation space. With jazzy dashboards and powerful energy management solutions, these optimisation suites are targeting a ‘power’ful market! Over time, these tools can help to completely automate the entire monitoring, control and management tasks in a smart grid.

The author is a technically-qualified freelance writer, editor and hands-on mom based in Bengaluru