smart grid

Three grids, two not ready for alternative power

In our first two posts, we talked about how our reliance on turbine technology and carbon-fueled generation is not going to be going away anytime soon, even though it is inefficient. Our next few posts will be looking at the problem of power distribution. The growth of alternative energy technology has fueled a movement toward distributed generation over grid distribution, which is what we more commonly employ.  Grid power in the US comes mostly in direct current (DC) generation, resulting from Thomas Edison winning the debate over the benefits of DC power offer Nikola Tesla’s alternating current (AC). We are not going to get into the benefits of one over the other here but will, instead, talk about what is. We have a massive investment in most of the US in DC generation. The exceptions are most of the state of Texas, which has a unique grid system capable of handling both, as well as a small portion of southern Alaska and some of the northeastern states.

The US has, essentially, three separate energy grids. East, West and Texas

DC is easier to distribute power over long distances. All grid systems have a certain amount of electricity loss but AC tends to lose more power than DC over distance. The problem with alternative power and most of the grid in the US is that alternative power cannot be sent to where it is needed when it is needed. It must be localized or “boosted” along the line. With large grid-scale facilities, like many of the photovoltaic facilities being built in the Southwestern deserts, that becomes a significant issue.

Distributed generation is a concept becoming more popular because it fits better into the uses of alternative power generation. Quite simply, it means you generate the power adjacent to where it is needed. If you put solar panels or wind generators on your property, you are a distributed-generation facility. That causes significant problems for the grid.

First, your solar panels are producing AC power, similar to what your handheld device uses, but your home is set up for DC. You have to add an inverter to your home to change the AC into DC so it can be used in your home and placed on the grid. Second, as we mentioned previously, the power you produce isn’t necessarily when you or the grid actually needs the power, so the utilities cannot rely on the power you produce being available when it is needed. An AC grid would be able to better distribute your excess energy, as it does in Texas, but most of us are not on an AC grid so we have to make do with what we have. We have invested far too much in the infrastructure to rip it out and install a new one.

That brings us to the owners and stewards of the grid: Utility companies. Power generation has become a major headache for utilities that draws resources and money away from grid maintenance (in other words, the powerless and towers criss-crossing the country). There has been little investment in upgrading the grid because of it, but it remains a significant source of income for utilities, especially as the distributed power network grows. When it looked like they could make money off of people who generated power with alternative energy, by buying it cheaply and selling for a profit, they were more than willing to offer sweetheart deals to companies like SunPower, but as we have pointed out earlier, the profits have not been forthcoming and the deals, known as net-metering, are going away.

At the same time, some utilities are looking at getting out of the generation game altogether. PG&E in Northern California has made no secret that it is not only not building any new generation facilities, it is selling off what it does have to independent companies, with an eye to upgrading distribution infrastructure. The utility actually buys much of the power it delivers to customers from out-of-state power plants. While this practice makes financial sense for the utilities as well as for the integrity of the grid, it means higher power bills for customers including those who have already invested in alternative sources. The big losers in this paradigm shift will be the solar and wind companies that have relied on a steady steam of investment and revenue from the utilities.

Tying the home to the Smart Grid

Most of the attention in the Smart Grid is given to the utilities and their controversial wireless smart meters.  But for the consumer to see real value in the technology requires creating a local network of appliances and systems within the home. That's not an easy task. There are many smart appliances on the market ready to tie into the grid, but not everyone is flush enough to go out an buy an entirely new set of appliances.  Somehow, the industry needs to create aftermarket.  At the DesignWest conference, Qualcomm Atheros was demonstrating your their products and techniques can move you closer to  energy efficiency, if not complete independence.  New Tech Press interviewed Qualcomm Atheros product manager Tim Colleran on what's happening.

Poland a bright spot in EU fiscal woes

Recently, bad economic news has been almost a daily occurrence out of the European Union, but there are occasional bright spots that miss the regular news cycle.  Poland seems to be one of them. Poland is due to become an official member of the Euro Zone in January 2012 and is obliged, under the terms of the Treaty of Accession 2003, to replace its current currency, the Zloty, with the Euro, however, the country may adopt the Euro no earlier than 2019.  That's probably good news for Polish start ups that seem to be able to find plenty of government support and venture capital for a raft of innovative technologies.

Footwasher Media's Lou Covey sat down with three Polish startup companies touring Silicon Valley recently, as they were on the hunt for partners and investors to help them expand into the US.  The three companies were Ekoenergetyka with electric vehicle charging technology, virtual environment maker i3d , and a chemical synthesis innovator called Apeiron.

This interview is the first in a series of reports and interviews on the state of European innovation and efforts of the European Commission's Digital Agenda.



Smart grid adoption may rest on electronic design

By Lou Covey NewTechPress Editorial Director

The establishment of the smart grid is an inevitability, according to experts speaking at the Smart Power Grid Technology Conference, but depending on power utilities, government and “field of dreams marketing” will only delay it.  That’s why the latent industry needs the help of the electronic design community, according to speakers at the event put on by ISQED.

Edward Cazalet, CEO of the Cazalet Group, and Tom Tamarkin, CEO of EnergyCite, painted a picture, for 100+ design engineers at the fledgling conference, of an industry that is ready to spread nationwide save for public misunderstandings, governmental gridlock, and utility intransigence. Between the two presentations they offered a road map for the smart grid but that lacked a clear path to public acceptance.

“That’s why I’m here today,”  Cazalet concluded.  “We need your help to spread this word and identify how it can be done.”  Both entrepreneurs were looking for attendees to start looking into the potential of the smart grid for new product development, not unlike what came out of the PC industry in the 1980s.

Cazalet opened the conference with a description of the Transactive Energy Market Information Exchange (TeMIX). The exchange protocol makes it possible for energy providers and customers to buy and sell blocks of power at any time. That includes power utilities, power resellers and even customers with alternative energy systems that create more power than they need.  For example, an electric vehicle sitting in a garage after it reaches a full charge is essentially a block of power that can be utilized.  Offering that block on the exchange makes it possible for the car’s owner to sell that power to the grid.

“Any party can buy and sell power blocks to any other party,” Cazalet explained. “ Customer purchase blocks of power by subscription, paying extra if they use more than what they purchase or selling back what they don’t use.”

At present, however, that infrastructure is dependent on the connection of smart meters to the supplier’s power blocks and consuming devices.  While utilities have been under directive of federal and state governments to deploy these devices since as early as 2004, widespread distribution of the devices is still creeping along.

Tamarkin pointed out that the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) mandated the installation of smart meters by investor-owned utilities in 2004.  Southern California Edison (SCE) initiated form opposition that same year.  Tamarkin drafted and personally documents to prove the benefit to SCE in 2005, causing SCE to reverse it’s position formally and move forward on the initiative.

Tamarkin explained that the current method of billing rate payers is to provide a bill for what was consumed 90 days previous. Rate payers can only adjust their usage after the fact and hope that they are doing some good.  A completed smart grid, starting with smart meters, allows rate payers to see what their consumption is at any particular point and what they will have to pay for it.

Tamarkin likened the potential to the relationship between a car and the gas pump.  Once a consumer puts the nozzle into the tank and starts pumping, he knows exaclty what is going in the tank and how much it costs.  And the gas gauge in the car tells him exactly what his consumption rate is with some cars telling the driver if his milage is optimal.  With that knowledge and TeMIX in place, Cazalet said consumers would be able to purchase sufficient power for their needs on a just-in-time basis and utilities would better be able to predict where that energy should come from and how much to produce.

The problem, however, is the utilities have not shown much interest in completing the loop with the consuming, possibly because it doesn’t benefit them in the short run.  As Cazalet put it, “If it isn’t about generation or distribution, they don’t much care to talk about it.”

That has allowed the discussion to be directed by unknowledgeable consumer groups the base arguments against the technology on misrepresentation and isolated instances of bad installations.  For example, Joshua Hartnett , a vocal opponent of smart meter installation, based on supposed radiation issues, uses a blackberry phone that emits more radiation at Hartnett’s head than he would ever receive from a neighborhood full of smart meters. The fact that utilities and governments have been moving to correct the misrepresentations only in the past year has contributed to the lack of adoption.

Both Cazalet and Tamarkin asserted that once consumers have easy access to products that could tie into the smart grid, it would create a groundswell of demand and pressure on legislators, regulators and utilities.


Smart Grid Conference should be on your calendar




The Smart Power Grid Technology Conference (May 12 at the Santa Clara Biltmore, should be on a lot of calendars this coming May.  Smart grid tech is a major new industry that is receiving a lot of bad press from a lack of knowledge and the only way to overcome that is by educating ourselves.

In particular, the session on  "The Transformation of Ratepayers into Customers" will be a significant piece of information. Tom Tamarkin, president of the Uttility Services Customer Link, will set out a definition for the term "smart meters" that takes into account the concerns of the public.

Additional topics include, "Enabling the Smart Connected Home," and "the Role of Smart Lighting in the Smart Grid."