smart grids: electrical efficiency through...connectivity

Smart grids, smart meters and smart cities: three of the hottest buzz-words around the M2M market right now, with the first recently explored within the ITU report: Boosting energy efficiency through Smart Grids.

joining the dots

The report confirms the kind of positive difference smart grids can make to energy efficiency, one of the first big global M2M deployments we’re expecting.

This positive difference smart tech can make’s becoming ever more important. Electricity production can be impacted by climate events: the weather can impact some forms of energy production, driving suppliers to deliver it from thermal gas and coal generation systems -- though green energy can perhaps reduce energy production costs.

In New Zealand, PwC Consulting’s Mr Chris Taylor says, "Given all the rain we’ve had recently, I know it may be hard to believe but this (financial) year 2012 (FY12) has been one of the driest on record. As a result, South Island catchments have experienced some of the lowest recorded hydro inflows and each of the generators has been impacted.”

At present, power utilities have a general knowledge of peak usage times and a more in-depth understanding of local and national demands on what they supply. Global deployment of smart metering systems should help boost their available information, switching on an age of smart power grids.

ITU to you

That’s the focus of the latest ITU report. Defining smart grids as an electricity grid that uses ICT to gather and act on information from suppliers ad customers, the report observes such systems should boost the efficiency of power supply and enable better use of alternative energy supplies.

“Smart grids can play an important role in the deployment of new electricity infrastructure in developing countries and emerging economies. It can also assist in managing peak demand, prevent electricity theft and also contribute to meeting environmental targets,” an ITU blog post informs.

“For example, hydropower in sub-Saharan Africa currently accounts for 45% of its electricity power generation. This represents only a small fraction of the enormous commercially exploitable potential. Africa also has abundant solar potential,” it adds.

The general focus at present is on integrating renewable energy supplies into existing supply infrastructure. As mentioned in the PwC report above, these renewable sources can be affected by climate events, meaning the grid itself must be able to predict these and compensate for anticipated lost production by grabbing power elsewhere.

“Extended monitoring and control functions, introduced using smart devices and a capillary communication network, are the core of the new smart facility added to the grid,” according to Carlo Tornelli and Gianluigi Proserpio of Ricerca sul Sistema Energetico (RSE SpA), Research on the Energy System, Milan.

Deployments include smart meters in homes and intelligent command and control systems on the grid itself. Berg Insight anticipates that growth will continue in the second half of this decade, with many markets approaching 100 percent penetration by 2020.

connected thinking

How should all these systems communicate? And how can they be deployed without adding additional power drain to an already stretched system?

Wi-Fi and Bluetooth networking systems are relatively power hungry; power line networking has promise, but is also a power drain.

Alternatively, ZigBee offers lower power consumption and lower data rates; then there’s the mobile network and future interface technologies (such as ITU–T, IEEE 1901 and others), though these aren't yet battle ready.

Similar questions challenge providers attempting to bring the substations into the loop. There’s multiple challenges here: how to handle all the information generated by the substation and how to economically share it with the main grid/control center at a low cost in energy.

“Existing wireless connections will not be sufficient to sustain the increased quality of service requirements and traffic load generated by metering and by the control and monitoring of information flowing around the distributed control infrastructure of the smart grid,” says the ITU.

This means substations will be upgraded to 3G, 4G or fixed broadband technologies.

data and power demands

“When one of the largest combination natural gas and electric utilities in the US introduced smart metering, its data volumes increased 300-fold,” ComputerWeekly has reported.

A number of leading technology companies have come together to form the Smart Energy Alliance. They are attempting to maximize the commercial opportunities created by the exciting convergence of information technology, communications and energy systems.

There’s a number of governmental initiatives to boost the smart grid:The Clean Energy Ministerial initiative; the International Smart Grid Action Network; and the European Strategic Energy Technology Plan join initiatives in the US, Japan, China and Korea.

Europe seems likely to become the lead region for smart metering. Berg Insight expects these will be installed in 111 million European homes by 2015.

There’s a consumer benefit, too: customers will get detailed data on their electricity consumption, educating them in order to reduce their power demands. In trials smart energy meters have reportedly reduced consumer energy consumption by 8.7 percent, because they help users accurately track how much power they use.

For more information on how M2M systems can be deployed, take a look at our ‘M2M Is Smart’ infographic available here.


Jon Evans

Jon Evans is a highly experienced technology journalist and editor. He has been writing for a living since 1994. These days you might read his daily regular Computerworld AppleHolic and opinion columns. Jon is also technology editor for men's interest magazine, Calibre Quarterly, and news editor for MacFormat magazine, which is the biggest UK Mac title. He's really interested in the impact of technology on the creative spark at the heart of the human experience. In 2010 he won an American Society of Business Publication Editors (Azbee) Award for his work at Computerworld.