The next ‘big thing’ is the Advanced Metering Infrastructure/Smart Infrastructure (Smart-grid and Smart-meter) and all the supporting technologies. Electricity Infrastructure is starting, the world over, to go through an immense change. The change is about supporting electricity generation and distribution with technology and hundreds of billions of dollars will be spent over the next few years in upgrading Electricity infrastructures. Here is an explanation of some of the technologies.
At present the electricity ‘network’ comprises the generators, the distributors and the consumers. Basically the consumers dictate the supply needed. The entire electricity infrastructure therefore needs to be designed to supply the maximum amount of electricity needed; electricity generally can’t be stored and electricity is either available or it isn’t unlike a computer network where service may just be degraded if demand exceeds supply so the network can be designed to cater for less than maximum demand (with electricity, if demand exceeds supply then the entire network ‘collapses’).
Smart-grids and Smart-meters
Right now, in many countries, Smart-grids and Smart-meters are being installed:
Smart-meter: A smart meter looks much like an existing electricity meter one has at home however it is packed with all sorts of clever technology. A Smart-meter communicates information with the Smart-grid such as if the Smart-meter is functioning correctly and how much electricity is being used. Households are therefore able, with this technology, to understand their electricity usage better.
Of course the huge upside to Smart-metering for electricity companies is that demand may be managed, in real-time, through pricing. By managing demand rather than having to concentrate on supply, electricity infrastructure may be more effectively used. For example, electricity demand is high in the evening (when people switch on washing machines etc.) and very low in the early hours of the morning. To manage demand better, electricity companies can make electricity less expensive in the early hours so as to encourage people to switch on their washing machines then.
This leads to the next big advantage of Smart-meters; they are able to manage electric devices in the household. For example, at present appliance makers such as Sony, Fujitsu and Samsung are working towards getting their devices to work with Smart-meter technologies. A homeowner therefore may ‘program’ the washing machine to switch on when electricity is least costly. The householder wins through lower electricity bills and the electricity companies benefit through electricity demand being more even throughout the day (with fewer and less severe spikes in electricity demand).
Smart-grid: A Smart-grid is essentially a significant upgrade to the existing electricity distribution and monitoring network. Smart-grids include I.T. networking and communication technologies which communicate and monitor the electricity networks and Smart-meters. Smart-grids enable the electricity networks to be more reliable through identifying potential errors as well as providing generators with real-time electricity usage demand. For example, every Smart-meter may have a Sim through which it sends usage and performance information through a Wimax (4G mobile) network. The central electricity computer system may identify that critical errors are occurring at a substation. The computer system may then automatically cut electricity supply to the substation to prevent a potential fire. Because the network knows which Smart-meters are connected to the substation it may automatically send an SMS message to all homes affected saying that the problem is being dealt with. At the same time the network will be automatically trying to reroute electricity as needed as well as engaging engineers to attend to the fault.
Economics, demographics, the environment and public opinion and so on are all looking for better and cleaner ways of managing and using energy. Electric cars for instance will place significant burden on electricity infrastructures if not managed appropriately. The world population is growing whilst becoming increasingly dependent on electricity which means more electricity generation and distribution. There is increasing ability to provide electricity into the network in the form of small wind and solar generators. The Smart Infrastructure, in the form of smart-grids and smart-meters enable electricity infrastructure to be used far more effectively and efficiently and to open a whole new world of possibilities.
We’ll be hearing far more about smart-meters and smart-grids over the next few years. The investment in supporting technologies and implementation projects will be massive. The Smart infrastructures will also enable all sorts of possibilities and technologies. The technology is in its infancy; it’s a giant industry in the making.