Dear colleagues

1. Just before launching into my somewhat brief consideration of smart grids please think about this: We are running a forum on smart grids in Melbourne, Australia, in September 2009, and we are looking for technical papers or suggestions.

2. On August 14, 2004, a power surge was detected in northern Ohio, USA caused by a failure of high voltage transmission lines. This resulted in probably the worst blackout ever in North America. The so-called “smart grid” could have minimized this fall-out by diverting power to the key areas which were affected.

The smart grid is a relatively simple concept but with enormous potential. As I understand it in brutally simple terms, a smart grid is simply overlaying the traditional electrical power grid with a communications network and effectively using the data gathered at all points of the grid so as to optimize its operation. This allows, for example; real time transmission of energy readings to utility companies without the need for manual meter readings. Nothing magical. But this can be extended in a myriad ways, such as changing power tariffs dynamically by sending data from the utility to the customer during periods of peak usage to encourage reduced consumption.

Some of the key characteristics of a smart grid are; advanced metering infrastructure (based on smart meters); visualization technology (to see what is happening over the complete grid) and integrating this with geographical information and managing peak consumption of electricity (to reduce the swings in power consumption – electricity unfortunately, must be consumed the moment it is generated).

The grid has become a very complex animal comprising “asynchronous, local (house, block, community, business, town) storage (super batteries, flywheels, superconducting magnetic energy, hydrogen, compressed air) and generation (wind, solar, geothermal renewables, added to gas, oil, coal and nuclear)’ (from Columbia - ref. below). The smart grid must also be able to deal with the unpredictable wind and solar power farms often located far away from the consumers.

So there are enormous opportunities for us all in providing solutions to this growing smart grid infrastructure.

What can we do about this information?

Read up more about smart grids:

There are heaps of great articles to read further up on this topic. Some of them are:

Try and apply the technologies to our systems, whether they be isolated or integrated with the overall electrical grid
Look at applying your in-house technologies to smart grids
Consider taking the smart grid technologies and applying them to gas and water systems
Tell others about the incredible opportunities in developing the smart grid

With smart grids, we are obviously intent on designing systems to be absolutely fail safe, esp. to avoid black outs, but we should heed Douglas Adam’s (of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) advice: “The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair”.

Yours in engineering learning