By Girish Shivakuma
The electric grid of today
In most parts of the world, the electric grid is predominantly unidirectional with a small percentage of bidirectional flow originating from grid-connected rooftop systems. Even with increases in renewable energy in the grid, the impact on climate change mitigation will remain insignificant if the end consumer doesn’t interact with the system.
The electric grid of the future
The transition to a low-carbon world implies switching to a fuel source that is not only environment friendly but is free, thereby reducing the overall operational costs in the long run. The grid infrastructure wouldn’t transfer the net benefit unless there is a seamless bidirectional communication between the source and the consumer — in other words, it has to turn into a “smart grid.”
According to EPRI, “Smart grid represents, the migration from the current grid with its one-way power flows from central generation to dispersed loads, towards a new grid with two-way power flows, two way and peer to peer customer interactions, distributed generation, distributed intelligence, command and control.”
Installing distributed energy systems like solar photovoltaic panels empowers people to shift from being a passive consumer of electricity to a “Prosumer” who sells power to the utility. Financial incentives like feed-in tariffs (FiT) are quite popular around the world, but the real potential of such systems will be leveraged when technological advancements like smart grids are in place and smart meters are the norm.
In the evolving connected world, every device around us is turning smart and it’s quite natural that the source powering them all is smart too (if not smarter). Germany and Italy have been pioneers in smart meter implementation, the former driven by a buoyant adoption of rooftop solar PV.
Why do we need a smart grid?
Renewable energy is intermittent, as is widely known. In an ideal case, we would prefer power production at times when we consume. In the real world, to meet power demand when renewable energy generation is low, there is a need to look for alternatives, which in general happens to be turning on fossil fuel power plants just to “keep the lights on” as the utility would claim.
In order to mitigate the potential damage caused by these scenarios, it is critical to ensure the fossil fuel powered plants are not turned on, let alone operated at a lower efficiency, thereby compounding the damage. Battery storage will be a key breakthrough, but unless the devices and the grid are in place, the net effect of energy storage will be minimal.
Can prosumers make an impact?
Technology at the renewable energy generator level enables forecasting at a better accuracy on a day-ahead level. The information (if shared to the consumers by utilities) along with the price incentive will enable them to shift loads to low price periods, thereby reducing the net overall demand. Demand Side Management (DSM) is another possibility considering the penetration of smart meters at residential consumer level. Utilities and DSM service providers anticipate that, with technological advancements, prosumers will not only be able to sell their excess PV but also be able to automate their battery backup systems to respond to utility signals by discharging energy back to the grid during peak load.
Overall, technological adoption will be key to ensure a successful RE transition. The idea of smart grid and smart meters controlling the devices has been mooted for long but with increasing renewable energy capacity addition, the technology will be indispensable. The penetration of intelligent appliances in households will leverage the smart grid technology in delivering value thereby providing the prosumers (who will be a significant majority) with a tool to know more about their electricity use, reduce demand, cost, and carbon emissions.