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Smart Green Grid Software Meets the Not-So-Smart Modern Electric Grid

The green movement is creating new marketplace opportunities as a result of developing new green technology. One technology is smart grid software. Businesses, traditional and emerging, will soon be affected by how this technology will be deployed and adopted as they move into some version of peak load or variable pricing.

The modern electric grid is hardly modern; it has barely changed in seventy-five years. Most electric grid systems today consist of transmission and distribution networks that connect power plants to end users. These systems rely on centralized power generation and feature bottlenecks and choke points where damage to the infrastructure can disrupt service to thousands of customers if not more. Todays electric grids are poorly equipped to handle the demands of the post-modern economy, which due to the ever increasing use of digital devices requires higher load demands and uninterruptible power.

Part of the problem is information--information in current power systems flows only one way, from consumers to the power utilities. The utilities know what the power loads are and where they are, but they struggle to meet power spikes with marginal success. Consumers have no idea (besides learning about it on the nightly news report) what the load demands on the power grid are and thus are unable to make usage decisions based on that information.

The other part of the problem is logistical: Current power systems rely on centralized generating stations that send power over transmission networks to several distribution substations, which then send power over distribution networks to end users. To meet increased peak demand in local areas excess, generators must be kept on standby so they can be brought online as needed. Power, for the most part, cannot be routed from another area to help meet the demand. Since as much as 10% of total power capacity is needed as little as 1% of the time, this means that a large number of small local emergency generators are needed to meet rapidly changing demand (as larger generators take too long to startup).

Smart grid systems are an attempt to address the shortcomings of the current electric grid by changing the flow of information and logistics. The new grid systems use internet connections between power stations, power meters, and appliances ultimately drawing power to make the flow of information about the state of the grid a two-way process between utilities and consumers. This enables consumers to make better decisions about their power usage; which they can even do automatically via the smart power meters.

Smart grid systems change the logistical nature of the grid from the centralized transmission and distribution system to a decentralized network model where excess power can be transmitted from one area to another as needed. Even better is the ability to use energy storage devices in households (such as plug-in hybrids) and power generating devices such as residential solar panels to supply energy back to the grid during hours of peak demand.

The goal of the smart grid system is to increase the reliability and efficiency of the power transmission systems on two fronts: (1) It decentralizes power generation with households that are both clients and suppliers; (2) It improves power consumption. Consumers are now in the driver seat and are better able make more precise decisions about how they consume power.

Test programs of smart grids have been steadily increasing over the last few years. Enel S.p.A. of Italy built a smart grid serving 27 million Italians in 2005. Essentially Enel invented the concept by installing smart meters that enabled two-way communication between the utility and energy consumers. Austin Energy, a Texas power utility, has been working on a similar initiative to replace all its power meters with smart meters by December 2008.

The GridWise Olympic Peninsula project, a study conducted by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, equipped homeowners with digital thermostats and computer controllers on their water heaters and clothes dryers. Participant homeowners were then able to set performance preferences of these devices according to their own preferences. The average household in the study saved over 10% on its yearlong electricity usage. A subset of the program used price-sensitive settings with the price of electricity varying as a function of power load on the grid and the performance of the appliances being set to respond to the price of electricity--these customers saved even more.

For businesses looking to leverage future developments in smart grid technology, it would be worthwhile to review all the power uses in their companies. Gaining an understanding of what power usage can be time shifted as well as coming to an understanding of inventory opportunities to sell power back to the grid will help businesses position themselves to take advantage of green grid technology to lower costs and even gain new revenue streams.

Given that the growing energy crisis is having a dramatic effect on the global economy, there is an urgency to begin planning NOW to help protect your business from rising energy costs.
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