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Power in the 21st Century: Broadband and the Smart Grid

Last week I wrote about the Federal Communication Commission's recently released National Broadband Plan, detailing six goals for improving the nation's high-speed communications networks, which the FCC calls "the great infrastructure challenge of the early 21st century."

Goal number 6 in the Plan is "To ensure that America leads in the clean energy economy, every American should be able to use broadband to track and manage their real-time energy consumption."

Tracking and managing our real-time energy consumption is part of what's known as the "smart grid."  The smart grid reflects a whole-scale modernization of the outmoded way we generate, transmit and consume electricity.

As the supply and demand for electricity has skyrocketed through the computer revolution, growth of the Internet, and proliferation of electronic devices, there has been no significant investment in the transmission and distribution infrastructure that connects the two. At a time when 60% of the U.S. gross domestic product depends directly on electricity (compared to 20% in 1950), we rely on an electric power infrastructure that is aging and outmoded. -- Smart Grid News

 What is a smart grid?

Smart Grid, n, "The two-way flow of electricity and information to create an automated, widely distributed energy delivery network." (National Institute of Standards and Technology)

In a speech before the release of the National Broadband Plan, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski asked his audience to imagine an America where power generators and end users are connected on a smart power grid, where electricity is doled out only as it is needed and is drawn from the most efficient sources.  "Such a plan could potentially cut greenhouse gases from power plants by as much as 12 percent - the equivalent of taking 55 million cars off the road."

Yet that kind of a plan - a nationwide smart power grid - "will require widespread broadband connections to relay information between utility companies, smart appliances and consumers."

Why a smart grid is important

While power outages in Arizona are typically the result of once-a-season monsoons, the 2003 blackout that left 50 million people in the Northeastern U.S. and Canada without power and cost the nation $6-10 billion, could have been prevented by a modern smart grid system.

"A mish-mash of 9,200 generators streams vital electrons along 300,000 miles of aging, inefficient transmission lines and one untrimmed tree in the wrong place could plunge a quarter of the country into darkness. This is our electric grid. A whopping 40 percent of all the energy used in the US - be it oil, gas, wind, or solar - is converted into electrons that travel over these wires. Any attempt at energy reform must begin here." -- Wired Magazine, "Power to the People: 7 Ways to Fix the Grid, Now"

"Think about it. The grid that powers the tools of modern life - computers, appliances, even BlackBerrys - looks largely the same as it did half a century ago."  -- President Barack Obama

Why the smart grid needs broadband

The key to an effective smart grid is easy, efficient communication - between power plants, transmission lines, and end users.  That communication requires broadband.

In its National Broadband Plan, the FCC laid out well how the development of a nationwide broadband infrastructure would enable the development of a smart grid system.  These are some highlights (the entire chapter, which is just about 14 pages long, is a worthwhile read).

  • Broadband-connected smart homes and businesses will be able to automatically manage lights, thermostats and appliances to simultaneously maximize comfort and minimize customer bills.
  • Broadband and information and communication technologies (ICT) can collectively prevent more than a billion metric tons of carbon emissions per year by 2020.
  • The vision is to build a modern grid that enables energy efficiency and the widespread use of both renewable power and plug-in electric vehicles, reducing the country's dependence on fossil fuels and foreign oil. This grid will intelligently detect problems and automatically route power around localized outages, making the energy system more resilient to natural disasters and terrorist attacks. It will keep bills low and minimize greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Realizing the promise of the Smart Grid will require the addition of two-way communications, sensors and software to the electrical system, both in the grid and in the home. Communications are fundamental to all aspects of the Smart Grid, including generation, transmission, distribution and consumption.
  • Power blackouts cost the nation as much as $164 billion per year. The Smart Grid could prevent many blackouts by sensing problems and routing power around them.
  • A recent study by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory estimates the Smart Grid can reduce greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation by as much as 12% by 2030, which is equivalent to taking 65 million of today's cars off the road.
  • According to a recent FERC report, dynamic pricing and better demand-side engagement can reduce peak demand by as much as 20% by 2019, limiting the need to build expensive new power plants.
  • Without a Smart Grid, widespread adoption of electric vehicles would require the construction of many more power plants. A 2008 study illustrates the challenge: California's grid has enough spare capacity to charge a fleet of more than 10 million plug-in electric hybrids at night without requiring new plants. But if drivers plugged in the same 10 million vehicles at the end of the workday, California would require 10 gigawatts of new capacity [that's like 3 big nuclear power plants].
  • Today, the more than 3,000 electric utilities in the United States use a variety of networks, including wired and wireless, licensed and unlicensed, private and commercial, fixed and mobile, broadband and narrowband. Traditionally, electric utilities build private networks to support applications with a high level of reliability, such as those for grid control and protection. These systems have operated separately from commercial networks, often utilizing privately owned, proprietary narrowband solutions.

However, current narrowband solutions are not able to support the growing number of endpoints requiring connectivity in the modern electric grid, and many utilities believe that solutions using unlicensed spectrum will be suboptimal for mission-critical control applications.

So the smart grid is critical to a secure, sustainable energy infrastructure; and broadband is critical to the development of a smart grid.  But here's the kicker, and, really, the bottom line of the FCC's 350+ page National Broadband Plan: There is no wide-area broadband network capable of meeting the mission-critical requirements of the smart grid.  Yet.

Written on Tuesday, 23 March 2010 14:59 by Gary Yaquinto

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