The Smart Grid and Distributed Generation: A Glimpse of a Distant Future
A smart grid/distributed generation combination could have a large role to play in the future of electricity systems in terms of both supply and use. But it is incorrectly being touted as the solution to our perceived electricity problems in the short term, that is for the next 10 to 20 years. Meaningful fulfillment of a “smart” grid and/or extensive Distributed Generation could be a half-century away, even more. Therefore, early, extensive, and expensive initiatives that claim to be on the “right track” are very likely to be on the wrong track later.
Is the right track (1) upgrading the grid capacity and implementing new transmission lines to facilitate the integration of utility-scale wind and solar or (2) the implementation of smart meters to match (read restrict) demand to the erratic and unreliable supply of these?
Absolutely not. Such ill-advised initiatives will require an unacceptably large investment in grid elements that will likely all too quickly become irrelevant as the needed electricity infrastructure changes are engineered and introduced in the future.
But first things first: what is meant by Distributed Generation (DG) and the smart grid?
Distributed Generation (DG)
One of the primary purposes of DG is to meet some level of local demand, not feed the grid. The imposition of mandated levels of renewable energy (RES) and Feed in Tarrifs (FIT) with premium prices to incent the deployment of wind and solar creates a “gold rush” for the latter. Industrial-scale wind and solar generation plants are like traditional generation sources in that they produce electricity to meet demand elsewhere, and in the case of wind and solar often at great distances. They are geographically distributed, and this is one element of differentiation from conventional electricity generation sources, but this is because the fuel, wind and sunlight, is dispersed widely. This is not DG.
The correct view of DG involves small-scale generation sources, for example roof-top solar and possibly micro wind turbines (better designs are possible) as well as many other non-utility scale generation means, and this list can be quite long. These will be integrated within micro-grids that contain intelligence to manage local production, storage (which is feasible even today at this level and shows considerable promise for the future) and use, as well as connection to the grid through intelligent gateways. Micro-grids can serve many types of “communities”, for example residential (especially in rural areas), combinations of commercial/industrial/residential communities, and college campuses. Such “concepts” are already being experimented with, for example at the University of California, San Diego, (USCD) including a gas turbine/combined heat and power system, and solar and fuel cell technologies described here and electric cars here. A quote from Byron Washom, the campus’ director of Strategic Energy Initiatives is appropriate.
“UCSD will become a laboratory where technologies can be tested and consumers’ behavior can be analyzed.”
Ignore the hype in the above examples, but applaud the approach as summarized by Washom. Also note the focus on consumer behavior at the same level as the technologies.
Will the “smart” meters being installed today be compatible with this yet-to-be architected and engineered smart grid? It is unlikely and represents potential high stranded costs that will encumber future generations. Today smart meters appear to have the major purpose of providing a means to raise electricity rates through aggressive time-of-day pricing to help fund the large investment needed, primarily for wind plants, and the extra transmission and generation facilities required to support them.
The Smart Grid
In a brochure by the Department of Energy (DOE), short term initiatives, as described in the second paragraph above, are labelled the “smarter” grid, supposedly on the track to the “smart” grid. Even without any knowledge of the issues involved, anyone familiar with unbelievable promises all too evident in some commercial advertising will recognize the warning signs. Here is a quote from the DOE about “smarter grid” initiatives (emphasis added):
- Ensuring its reliability to degrees never before possible.
- Maintaining its affordability.
- Reinforcing our global competitiveness.
- Fully accommodating renewable and traditional energy sources.
- Potentially reducing our carbon footprint. [interesting qualification]
- Introducing advancements and efficiencies yet to be envisioned.
The reality is no one knows what the smart grid will ultimately look like. It represents a major shift in our electrical energy infrastructure, which will necessarily take a long time to effect, in part because there will be social impacts on any such major restructuring. As previously mentioned, this and a reasonable time frame for the development and extensive implementation of the many technologies involved within a properly engineered architecture is the second half of the 21st century.
Restating this, aggressive implementation initiatives taken today are likely premature and have questionable motives. In the same way no one knows what the likes of transportation, communications, information processing, education, world government, health care, food production and urban development will look like in the same time frame. Effective changes in all of these will be an evolutionary process, not a revolutionary one. Electricity generation and distribution is as fundamental as these and the fervour being exhibited about revolutionizing it in a short time frame is simply misinformed.
An article in the April 2021 issue of Power Magazine, “The Smart Grid and Distributed Generation: Better Together” provides a good background on these issue. Amidst all the detail though, a few matters need emphasizing to properly provide a framework to make sense of this important infrastructure shift.
- No one knows what the smart grid will ultimately look like, so there should be no early major investment in deploying technologies until this is better understood.
- One of the primary functions of DG is to meet some level of local demand, not feed the grid.
- We should not be distracted by discussions about the extensive implementations of concepts (e.g. utility-scale electricity storage, wide-spread impact of electric vehicles), which may only be realizable in the distant future.
- Cyber security must be a major development initiative and this further emphasizes (1) the need to avoid overly hasty implementations and (2) the importance of the localized nature of the most likely smart grid architecture as opposed to grid-wide approaches.
[Editor’s note: For more commentary on the smart grid click on the Smart Grid sub-category under Policy Issues. The NERC report is recommended reading for a more complete understanding of the issues.]