As I sit in my living room writing this blog, I look around at my personal items in the room: three electric guitars, two desktop computers, a laptop, my iPhone, lights, etc. What do all these devices have in common? They require power, in one form or another, to operate.
Our society has become heavily dependent on both power and communications. But even the “fuel” of communications is electricity. Indeed, without power, our society could not exist as we know it.
One common theme between power systems and communications is that the current infrastructure in many instances limits the development of future technologies. Specifically for the former, one must justify the added cost of replacing existing transmission lines or generators in order to get this accomplished. Alternatively, one must find ways of incorporating new ideas into the existing grid, which presents challenges of its own. For example, it is not an easy task to build a localized generator and interface it with the existing grid.
But the problems that the current electric grid faces are far more reaching and diverse than the mere fact that its “old”. The most dominant form of electricity generation in the US by a long shot is coal, and not far behind it is nuclear energy. Why is it that the two most harmful forms of energy – coal because it burns fossil fuels, and nuclear because of the hazards it poses – are the most common forms of generation? Because they are also BY FAR the cheapest, and in addition, our current infrastructure has many of these forms of generators already in place.
As more and more devices run on electricity, and with the world’s population at unprecedented levels, you may wonder what effect this could have on electricity distribution. By some estimates, the electricity demand is expected to increase by up to 1% per year over the next 20 years. As a result, we will need more generators and more ways of providing the added electricity reliably to prevent blackouts. Speaking of reliability, what is one way to reduce the time it takes to determine the root cause location of a blackout? Incorporating “smarter” sensor devices into the grid in key locations, so that once a line, transformer, or other device fails, the power companies can immediately determine where the fault has occurred.
Fuel prices are expected to rise to unprecedented levels in the near future – Up to $4.00 a gallon for regular. Is there any way to obviate the need for gasoline in cars? One plausible alternative is to operate cars solely or partially (hybrid) on electricity. But this also poses various problems, from the fact that electricity itself is expensive to the fact that eliminating the fuel economy in the US could turn the nation upside down.
The MIT Energy Initiative provides a comprehensive portrait of the US Electricity Grid, its current state, as well as the challenges it is likely to face over the next decades. In doing so, it defines various aspects of what we have coined “Smart Grid” in everyday speech (for engineers, at least). Their current issue (one of six) describes the following:
1. The potential of integrating renewable sources of energy (such as wind and solar power) into the grid.
2. Proposed ways of dealing with cybersecurity threats.
3. Ways of improving grid efficiency through advanced metering devices.
4. The pros and cons of distributed (i.e. smaller and more localized) generators.
5. Key areas (grid design planning, computational tools, etc) in which research is still needed looking into the near future.
You can find a link to their hour long video as well as their 280 page report at http://web.mit.edu/mitei/news/videos/electric-grid-study-2011.html. I hope you find it as interesting as I did.