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Smart grids will anchor the future of energy

By John McDonald


The future of energy will be heavily influenced by economic, societal and technological trends that will be intricately intertwined, and we’re still in the early days of moving to a more holistic approach to energy distribution and management.

Ultimate success is a three-legged stool comprised of three legs: technology, industry standards and policy. If any one of these legs is missing, the stool collapses. These three factors are all necessary for a transition from siloed devices and systems to a set of technology components that will be integrated together to address the business needs of customers and utilities.

The business of generating and distributing energy faces disruption on many fronts. On the generation side, the economics of power production is rapidly changing due to the increased availability of low-cost natural gas and technological improvements that are helping to drive down the cost of renewable generation.  These developments, coupled with new environmental regulations, are leading to the retirement of coal-fired power plants across many parts of the country.

And in the past five years, reaction to increasingly extreme weather is also a critical factor influencing power generation and distribution. The growing number of extreme weather events is giving us more impetus to make smart grids a reality everywhere because we must increase the resilience of energy distribution and transmission. We live in a world that is dependent on power for everything we do; an interruption for a period of time means we’re not able to do much of anything.

Resilience is key a characteristic of a smart grid, and dealing with extreme weather is one of the primary benefits of a smart grid. First we have to architect grids and deploy them. When these extreme weather events do occur, we need to understand what can be done as they happen. And then we have to figure out how we can better handle these extreme weather events after they happen. That’s where integration of components come in.

Smart grids require five key components for distributing electricity in a more intelligent and resilient manner, and big data and the Internet of Things (IoT) play a role. Smart meters, metering communications, outage management systems, geographic information systems and distribution management systems are all required, but to be effective you have to integrate them. They have more value together as a whole than just individually.

For smart grids, IoT comes in the form of sensors that can gather more data than we’ve been able to gather before and pull it together to make it more useful so we can make better decisions with regard to energy generation, distribution and management. IoT is what creates big data for utilities and it’s part of what makes a grid more intelligent. Because we are generating more data, enterprise data management is also a bigger focus.

But collection of data does not have to be relegated to just sensors owned by utilities. We’re living in an era where the average consumer can play a role in providing useful data to improve energy distribution and management, particularly during and after extreme weather events such as a hurricane or intense winter storms. Social media can help accelerate restoration after an outage by taking tweets on Twitter from customers and incorporating them directly them into the outage management system, for example. That’s incredibly valuable.

While social media and IoT technology provides new ways to gather data, a challenge that remains for utilities wanting to become a true smart grid is breaking down the siloes between operations technology and information technology. It’s the latter that can pull data from the former and helps create the intelligence that’s a key characteristic of a smart grid. However, operations technology and information technology tend not to be well connected. They are two very different cultures within utilities. This disconnect prevents them realizing the value from big data and enterprise data management.

Smart grids span a wide landscape, from turbine to toaster, but the future of energy distribution, generation and management will encompass IoT to cost-effectively gather data and connect machines, big data and analytics, and people, who will have more actionable data and be better connected to support the intelligence required for the future of energy.

John McDonald is an IEEE fellow and writes here representing their organization. He recently gave the keynote at the IEEE Technology Time Machine symposium for the theme “Smart Grid and Beyond” on what trends are influencing the evolution of energy generation and distribution, the key components of a smart grid and the role of big data. McDonald is also the director of GE’s digital energy business.


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Kathleen Wolf Davis's picture

Thank Kathleen for the Post!

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