Electricity is one of the most efficient forms of energy that has powered human societies. An increasing percentage of global energy production is being converted to electrical energy for consumption over the last century. From 2% of fossil fuel energy being converted to electrical energy in 1900 to 10% by 1945, the 2000s saw as much as 25% of fuel energy being converted (Smil, 2017). The 21st century also marked an increased awareness and concern over environmental degradation resulting from coal and oil fired power plants, such as greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that contribute to climate change. Another issue is the non renewability of these resources. Oil and coal is estimated to run out before 2100 and 2300 respectively (Fisher, 2018). Transition into cleaner and more renewable sources of energy, such as wind, and solar are thus an increasing concern if humanity wishes to be sustainable. However, in the author’s opinion, one issue that has been inadequately addressed is the aging electrical grid system, distributing power from energy sources to energy consumers. This critical component of electrification is in need of upgrade to the “smart electrical grid” to address the changing needs for the future of electricity.
Electrification is one of the defining aspects of modern human society which only started with the invention of the electric light bulb during the late 19th century. The installation of the first electrical generating plant at Holborn Viaduct, London, in 1882 by Thomas Edison’s companies marked the advent of widespread centralized electrical generation (Smil, 2017). Up until the 1930s, the main source of electrical power has come from hydroelectricity, but technological advances have made fossil-fuel generation much cheaper and more efficient. (Britannica, 2015). Regardless of the source of electricity used, whether it is large hydroelectric, coal, natural gas, or nuclear, which accounted for up to 90% of global electrical production in 2012 (World Resources Institute, 2016), the method of distribution has remained similar. Figure 1.0 depicts the electricity flow in Hong Kong, China, an example of the conventional model for an electrical grid.
The smart electrical grid is an upgrade of the conventional electrical grid, as described, to be more efficient, reli200able, and flexible (Amin, 2016). A more efficient grid minimizes losses over transmission of electrical power, thus decreasing the amount of fossil fuels (if used) combusted per unit kilowatt of electricity consumed. A more reliable grid means that the grid provides optimum functioning in the case of partial grid failure (caused by an earthquake, for example), thus decreasing the impact to both important facilities, such as hospitals, as well as losses to the economy. A more flexible grid could not only adjust to the dynamic demands of electricity especially during peak hours consumption, but also by successfully integrating alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar that would have higher variation in electrical output. These aspects combined makes this an important tool to aid humanity to bridge to transition from fossil-fuel based to a clean-energy based society, while providing a host of side benefits.
Improving efficiency in power distribution lowers the demand for fossil fuels and electricity from other sources, which aid the development and installation of alternative energy sources. According to the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), an updated, modern grid has the potential to reduce GHG emissions up to 58% in the year 2030 compared to 2005 (Kanellos, 2011), aiding in the crucial issue of mitigating climate change This is accomplished by reducing the electricity consumption during “peak periods” of consumption, which take a large amount of extra resources of generation and distribution, unused during “off periods,” to meet that extra demand (Amin, 2016). Monitoring systems and smart homes, which adjust power generation and appliance use respectively, as shown in Fig. 2.0, is one method for achieving this goal. The result would not only be useful for the present and near future, where centralized power systems are and would be still used, but also when human society has transitioned to a more decentralized electrical system. There would always be times of the day where electrical use is especially higher than others, such as during afternoons (12:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.), compared to midnight and early morning (12:00 a.m.), as depicted in Fig. 3.0. Even with a more complex range of electrical source options, the basic principle of “flattening the load” of the smart electrical grid (Amin, 2016) still applies, especially with an ever increasing electrical demand. Instead of spending costly amounts of money and resources, such as copper, steel, and aluminum, on building backup facilities and extra power lines, they could instead go to alternative electricity research and installation, or other beneficial economic and industrial uses.
Improving grid reliability carries with it many indirect benefits along with the more obvious desire to decrease the frequency of blackouts, an inconvenience to households. Power outages, whether caused by natural disasters such as earthquakes or hurricanes damaging a component of the grid, as well as the rarer overload of the grid’s capacity by excess demand, have significant economic tolls. The reliability of an electric grid is measured by the indicator “% reliability,” which takes the average total amount of time in a single year where there is electricity divided by the total amount of time in an year, multiplied by a hundred %. (Smil, 2017). The current industry target is 99.9999%, while the U.S. only has a reliability of 99.98%, costing the economy between an estimated 18 to 75 billion USD between 2003 and 2011 (Smil, 2017). The reason for such a costly toll is because of the dependence of many sensitive industries on a constant source of electrical energy. Financial markets and telecommunications stop without electricity. Electronics and heavy industries which are intensive consumers of power would need costly auxiliary generators, and when those run out, could stop production. Even worse, hospitals, police, and fire stations as well as basic facilities such as water and gas also require electricity to function, necessary for a country to function. While one may argue that equipping the U.S. electrical grid with smart functions is an even costlier prospect, costing between 338 to 476 billion USD, according to the EPRI, it has the potential of generating 1.3 to 2 trillion USD in benefits between 2010 and 2030 (Kanellos, 2011). This may come in the form of the more obvious savings to industry and finance that depend on a reliable source of electricity, but also to job prospects and alternative energy investment.
The importance of grid reliability is also highlighted in a widespread blackout in the northeastern United States and parts of Canada in 2003. Caused by the failure of a few HV-power lines that triggered a cascading event, costing the economies as much as 6 billion USD, the failure lasted for 2 days (Minkel, 2008). Grid systems in one localized area could overload neighboring lines, and without immediate response, could cause those lines to also fail. Other blackout events, such as those caused by natural disasters, also are a potential source of cost to the electrical grid system, a problem that would only increase as climate change worsens. As depicted Fig. 4.0, the occurrence of major power outages in relation to more extreme and frequent weather events had increased in the United States from 1984 to 2012, a problem that is occurring all over the world. Cyberattacks are another overlooked threat to grid security. One such example affected about 90 million people in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and Paraguay in 2009 (Bosselman, 2011). As information technology improves, aiding hackers and cyber attackers, the possibility for a concerted attack in an attempt to disrupt the electrical grid is even more dangerous to national and international safety. Clearly, adopting a safe grid with capabilities of constant monitoring and automatic adjusting would be not only of convenience, but of paramount importance.
Figure 4.0. United States Power outage yearly frequency caused by natural disasters over 28 years, from 1984 to 2012. Adapted from Climate Central, April 10th, 2014. Retrieved April 14th, 2018 from http://www.climatecentral.org/news/weather-related-blackouts-doubled-since-2003-report-17281
Improving grid flexibility is possibly the most direct advantage of adopting the mart electrical grid. Increasing efficiency and reliability as discussed previously are an indirect consequence of having a grid that could dynamically adjust to production and demand of electricity. As new technologies relating to electrical storage and alternative electrical production are developed, improved, and implemented, the complexity of the electrical system would increase. Electrical production from renewable sources of energy such as wind, solar, hydro, biomass, and tidal have large variations in their capacity, location, and power fluctuation. The German-based Siemens AG states for European countries:
“ … estimates that optimization of wind and solar plant locations could result in as much as €45 billion in cost savings by 2030 … result in electricity being produced far away from the centers of demand … expansion of transmission networks would be absolutely essential… have the positive side effect of reducing the need for cost-intensive storage capacities” (Kreutzer, 2014).
Decentralization and personalization of the power grid is likely to come as cleaner sources of energy are adopted, which could not be tackled effectively by the current electrical grids. As sources of power move away from cities and into areas such as in deserts and plains for solar and coasts for hydroelectric, effective management of this power supply could only be optimally accomplished by means of the smart electric grid. New tools like the smart meter, which could more accurately monitor electrical flow from a source or consumer and “communicate” with the electricity provider. In the case of household use, they report a more accurate and lower charge for electricity (Amin, 2016). Solar panels owned by households not only reduces power consumption, but also lowers electrical spending when excess power flows via the “net metering system” into the electrical grid (Bosselman, 2011). This not only lowers the need for the combustion of fossil fuels, but also enhances diversification of electricity sources, providing increased reliability.
The global issue of transitioning into a less fossil-fuel intensive society while maintaining global security and economic growth is a difficult issue to tackle, particularly so because is requires the collective cooperation of all nations. As such, the smart electrical grid plays a crucial role in this change by easing this progression. The increased efficiency reduces the need for fossil fuels; the increased reliability decreases the chance of costly grid failure; and the increased flexibility allows for the integration of sustainable sources of energy. These 3 aspects combined make the smart electrical grid an important component for any nation. In the author’s opinion, distribution, a traditionally overlooked portion of the electrical system, must be modernized to effectuate the full potential of clean electricity provision.