Utilities, Environmentalists Envision "Smarter" Demand-Side Management
In some respects, the microprocessor is at the root of many of the electric-utility industry's recent challenges. Its vital and increasing importance in all industries is raising both electricity demand and power-quality requirements. But now, some industry experts see microprocessors as the key to the industry's future as well.
In some respects, the microprocessor is at the root of many of the electric-utility industry's recent challenges. Its vital and increasing importance in all industries is raising both electricity demand and power-quality requirements.
But now, some industry experts see microprocessors as the key to the industry's future as well. They envision microchips as extending transmission and distribution control from the generating station down to your kitchen refrigerator.
This "smarter" approach is seen as one means of addressing transmission-system shortfalls, predicted by some to reach crisis proportions within a decade. Enabling communications down to end-use devices could allow great improvements in today's demand-management efforts, proponents say, boosting transmission efficiency and limiting the need for system expansion.
This futuristic—and expensive—plan is drawing support from utility leaders and environmentalists alike. The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), the research arm of the electric-utility industry, is developing technologies that could provide real-time data on transmission-system conditions and dramatically decrease system response, making better use of existing resources. Incorporating communications capabilities into household appliances and generators could allow for almost seamless operation of both centralized and distributed systems, says EPRI vice president Clark Gellings in a recent issue of EPRI Journal.
Climate Solutions, an Olympia, Wash., nonprofit focusing on energy use in the Pacific Northwest, advocates a similar strategy in a recent report, "The Smart Energy Network." Author Patrick Mazza calls the potential advances of such a unified approach "the most profound transformation in electrical power since the grid was created over a century ago."
Researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Richland, Wash., suggest that flattening out existing peaks in electricity demand could eliminate the need for some 10 gigawatts of new generating capacity, which the organization has said could be required to meet user needs by 2020.
Similarly, EPRI has predicted that while electricity demands will grow by 17% between 1998 and 2007, transmission-system expansion will be less than 4%. Enabling system-wide communication with "smart" distributed-generation resources could mean dramatically lower transmission requirements—and enormous long-term savings.
All parties agree that a large, upfront investment in technology is needed to make this vision a reality. Hurdles include existing computational and software limitations and the lack of low-cost sensors with the required capabilities. Overcoming these obstacles, experts say, would create the opportunity for reimagining the entire U.S. electrical transmission and distribution system.
"The very thing that has transformed any number of industries in this country is about to transform our industry," Gellings says. "Computers and technology that involves communication and sensors will give us an opportunity to transform our power-delivery system."
New Device Promises Safer Generator Connections
A new device is on the market that connects residential electrical systems to portable generators—and disconnects them from the utility grid. GenerLink is said to be a safer alternative to existing solutions. It is installed just behind the user's electric meter. Upon connection to the collar-shaped unit, generators are able to feed power directly into the residential circuit panel. Users can then direct power to desired appliances with circuit breakers, instead of extension cords.
Developers at the Electric Power Research Institute say the device also automatically disconnects the home's electrical system from the utility grid, preventing power backfeeds that could endanger repair personnel. The device is being marketed to utilities by Global Power Products, located in Gwinnett County, Ga.