Mainstreaming The Smart Grid

Editor’s note: Takafumi Arai is the digital marketing supervisor for Toshiba’s global smart community projects, which include a variety of renewable energy solutions that the company is implementing and testing in a dozen countries.

The October anniversary of Hurricane Sandy — which knocked out power in over 8,100,000 homes in 17 states and was the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history — has served as an opportunity to reflect on how we view our power grid. The practice is important. Stephen Lacey provided some of the best analysis of what caused the storm and how utilities are adapting the grid. Many utilities across the country took note and have been actively researching and implementing solutions to prepare for the next big storm.

But out of that R&D, which factors deserve the most attention and resources? In my view, if utilities aren’t looking at how to implement smart meters, solar power generations systems and storage batteries, their system will be outdated in the next year. So what are some of the top utilities and companies doing in the U.S. to advance their grids with these solutions?

Smart Meters

Smart meters do more than just automatically turn up or down your heat, which is a simplistic explanation that is used pretty often. For example, Florida Power & Light (FPL) has spent over two decades working on a distribution system that extends from the smart meter to a performance and diagnostic center. Its system collects and leverages detailed information on previous outages – from momentary disruptions to trees falling on power lines – to understand and anticipate what is wrong in a current situation and respond automatically to imminent or current outages.

Smart meters are helping to manage water, too. Last year, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) announced a $50 million project to install 177,000 new meters to automatically transmit hourly data back to the utility. Similar to the FPL example, the system can collect data on usage without anyone – the consumer or utility – having to manually check. Let’s say a water pipe breaks in your house while you’re on vacation. Because the utility sees that this produces unusual activity, it can turn off your water until you come back to deal with it.

You can find similar stories happening in utilities all over the country, and that’s because they understand the impact of smart meters not just in day-to-day energy usage, but also for aiding in disasters like Sandy. Let’s say every building and home in every state that was affected by Sandy had been equipped with a smart meter. Instead of taking weeks to manually search for outages in the electric or water lines (which is costly and can present a significant safety hazard), a smart meter could pinpoint the location of the fault so the utility could fix it quickly.

Solar Power Generation

You’ve likely seen homes equipped with solar-powered roofs or panels. As the White House reported in May 2014, every four minutes a new solar panel is being installed. These homes are becoming increasingly common, especially in areas with utilities that are offering incentives for installation, such as Consumers Energy in Michigan. (Michigan’s regulatory actions and financial incentives support this – specifically a 30 percent federal tax credit for any size project.)

These photovoltaic (PV) systems collect energy from the sun, and because they are connected directly to the grid, they can power the energy we use on a daily basis – from cooking to showering to simply heating the house. The concept of consumers being able to power their own energy use – as long as it’s tied back to the grid – is a compelling one.

But as these systems continue to be distributed for mainstream usage, U.S. utilities are also looking to Germany for guidance. Germany is a good case study, both for its successes and its oversights. Although it has come a long way since it started, German utilities vastly underestimated the popularity of rooftop solar when the initiative was new, so they didn’t prepare for the expensive upgrades the grid needed to support it.

For example, the electricity produced must be converted from DC (direct current) to 120/240 volt AC (alternating current) for consumers to use in the home. It doesn’t just do it itself – utilities need the right software and hardware in their infrastructure.

Storage Batteries

Another component of solar-power systems is storage batteries, which aren’t currently used much because they are still very expensive. However, these are guaranteed to take off in the very near future, and will be a critical component to a stable power grid.

Typically, when a utility loses power, solar generation systems are automatically shut down. But with effective storage batteries, the system could remain operational for days or weeks at a time. In fact, earlier this year Navigant Research released a market analysis and forecast on how effective batteries could have a significant impact on our grid.

When it comes to storage batteries, there are several factors a developer needs to consider. First, how safe is it? Keep in mind that a small nine-volt battery in a junk drawer next to some steel wool can burn down your house. The batteries we’re talking about are on a whole new level. For example, lithium-based batteries, which are being heavily explored as an option for energy solutions, can lead to gas leaks and ultimately fire if subjected to a host of thermal (it gets too cold) or electric (external or internal short circuits) abuse conditions.

Second, how quickly can it recharge and how long can it keep that charge? What if you live in an area like London, which is notorious for its overcast days? Or can it maintain during the winter months when we have longer stretches of dark than light?

Lastly, how efficient is it? Is it using more energy to store than it is to keep your solar-powered system running? At Toshiba, we believe these are the critical questions that should be asked when developing battery solutions.

Preparing For The Future

We can’t control hurricane season, and most of us will likely experience another hurricane similar to Sandy in the U.S. But with the technology and solutions available to us today, what we can prevent is the same level of destruction. The onus is not just on utilities and companies, but on all consumers who can ask their local utility what is being done to advance their systems.