The decentralized, bi-directional power of smart grids

Under this model, utilities would pay their customers for surplus energy, and use AI and sensors to match energy supply with demand 
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· 4 min read

From Texas’s winter blackouts to NYC’s late-July heat wave-driven “conserve energy” alert, it’s clear that American power grids need help.

Cue the tech experts, who say the solution is making the grid “smart.”

Smart grids are a management system that use a combination of sensors and AI to distribute and conserve energy. Iterations of the concept already exist across the country in cities like New York and Los Angeles, where utilities can use smart meters to monitor energy consumption and allow customers to sell surplus energy back to the grid if they so choose. With the bipartisan infrastructure bill likely to inject $3 billion into the Department of Energy’s Smart Grid Investment Matching program, it’s likely we’'ll see greater adoption of such technologies in the near future.

The current electric grid is built to deliver electricity from power sources like dams, coal, nuclear, and gas plants to consumers directly at home. The smart grid is designed to flip this transaction, allowing energy to flow both ways, from the plant to the home and back again.

“If we make grids smart...instead of tens and hundreds of large-scale generators, we can power the electricity supply locally through a larger number of smaller power plants,” Yury Dvorkin, assistant professor at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering, told Emerging Tech Brew.

Under this decentralized, bidirectional model, utilities can pay their customers for surplus energy at peak-demand hours to bolster the broader grid, and, ideally, use AI and sensors to more closely match energy supply with demand.

“Let’s say you go on a trip to Europe for a couple of weeks. Your solar panels are still producing power. Your batteries are still storing that energy,” Mike Bates, global GM of energy at Intel, said. “If you have a relationship with these local utilities, you can then open up that power while you’re out of town to the utility as they need it. Then you come home and you find a check in the mail from the utility to pay you for the energy that they used.”

Right now, most smart grid projects involve customers selling back energy generated from solar panels, but eventually, the idea is to bring electric vehicles into the fold too. This idea is known as vehicle-to-grid charging: You can lend out energy stored up in your EV based on the grid’s needs, and your usage patterns. No cars on the US market support this yet, but with the Ford F-150 Lightning going into production, that will change soon.

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For all of the potential benefits, building a smart grid is not foolproof. For one, with more connectivity comes more cybersecurity concerns and privacy considerations. It also requires significantly more coordination.

“Instead of one nuclear power plant which is perfectly controllable, where you have engineers who are smart or intelligent, who know how this equipment works, you have to roughly coordinate 50,000 solar panels,” Dvorkin said. “That’s a big challenge because you no longer have onsite engineers. You no longer have perfect controllability. And most importantly, you have no control over the sun or wind.”

Bates said Intel has a vision for an autonomous smart grid, reliant entirely on renewable energy like wind farms, solar panels, and hydroelectric dams. Their proposal would use AI to make real time adjustments as crises face the grid, like the surges in demand that commonly occur in heat waves. This network would manage the decentralized network of solar panels, electric vehicle charging stations, and wind turbines that would make up the new smart grid.

“I start to get a view and sense of monitoring across the entire service territory when I connect all these substations together,” Bates said, referring to the place where high-voltage electricity is converted to low-voltage electricity before being sent to homes. “I have the ability to interface that with the market...The utility then begins to transact with the market based on all this new information they have, completely opaque today to the utility.”

Intel is developing versions of this smart grid vision in partnership with utilities in southern California, Europe, and Malaysia, but it’s still early days.

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