The diagram illustrates the sources of renewable energy which might be engaged in a smart grid

The Challenge

Another energy bill lands on your doorstep.

But what does it mean? Who is raking in the money? And why, why is it so expensive?

Many of us area tiny little bit confused by our electricity bills.

We wonder whether a few solar panels or perhaps a small wind turbine might not prove cheaper.

But most of us feel a little bit lost when facing technical terms like “grid”, “smart grid”, “micro-grids” and “micro-renewable energy”.

Well, here we answer some of the most commonly asked questions.

The Old Power Grid

In the old days, when I was a youth, all was simple. A power station (coal, gas, nuclear or hydro) generated electricity. The high wires transported the electricity to our homes, offices, hospitals and factories. The consumer paid for the amount he used.

Inflexible, but not complicated. But with over 300,000 miles of transmission lines, they are vulnerable. Subject to vandalism, blackouts when demand exceeds supply. And then, of course, the weather, icing up or blowing down the cables. Eventually, our intrepid technicians repair them. And often in rather horrid and even dangerous conditions.

The Modern Power Grid

Now we have a more complicated system. No longer so we have a single power station exporting electricity but a multitude of sources. These include renewable energy like solar, hydro, wind and biomass.

And that’s fine as far as it goes. The problem lies in that we cannot really rely on the weather to be constant or reliable. We can’t make the sunshine in the dark of the evening. The time when we all want to use electricity to cook our evening meal and light up and heat our homes.

Image of the lit sky at night America

As for wind turbines, they don’t work when there is too little breeze and may even be destroyed by strong gales.

The Smart Grid

The smart grid aims to match supply with demand. There will usually be a storage system which can store any surplus to release it when demand is high.

A simple hypothetical example using a car shows how this system might work:

Overnight your car is charged at the low-cost off-peak rate.

You drive to work and plug-in to recharge during the shoulder hours of the day

You drive home and set the car to recharge overnight.

You will save about half the cost of driving only on gas.

 But the smart gird for your home or office can be a lot more complicated and might involve more than one source of renewable energy. It may or may not also be connected to the national grid.

There are homes which are totally self-supporting. They might derive energy from wind and solar sources, with a back- up generator and a battery storage system.

Some of the Things a Smart Grid Needs

To be effective and responsive a smart grid requires certain components:

  • Integrated communication – essential to glue all the rest together. A rapid response and a rapid transfer of information are key ingredients to a system that responds to needs. It may include fibre-optics, wireless mesh networks as well as data acquisition and control.
  • Sensing and measurement – this will collect the data needed to respond to demand. They also complete your bills!
  • Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) – this will let YOU tell the system what you need. It will also find and localise any distribution problems.
  • Education support – important technologies to help grid managers become even more knowledgeable.

Micro-grids

A micro-grid is a localised smart grid, involving selected buildings.

One example is the Brooklyn micro-grid, situated in the Park Slope and Gowanus areas of New York. Members can buy and sell renewable energy in this case from solar panels. Known as a “transactive grid”, it needs both the hardware and the software to function efficiently and safely.  Individual members can sell their surplus solar energy to other local people. The money stays in the community.

Your Smart Meter

An important component of a smart grid is your smart meter. This will help you make well-informed decisions on your energy spending and needs.

A smart meter is an electronic device which keeps track of your electricity consumption. The information is sent back to your energy supplier daily. This obviates the needs for regular meter readings. Here is more information about reading your energy bills.

There are Other Benefits:

  • You can see where and when you are spending your energy, it’s easier to economise.
  • It helps to make the system much more efficient.
  • It will lessen pollution from power stations.
  • For the provider, it makes billing easier and helps to determine the proper price according to demand.

Challenges in Moving to Smart Meters

  • Old analogue meters have to be safely deposed of.
  • Safety of personal data and storage of it.
  • Upgrading with all the new technologies can be both expensive and time-consuming. But both money and time will be saved in the longer term.
  • And of course, people have to actually understand how to use the meters. Then you can find ways that make saving both for yourself and for the power providers. And this can be quite an incentive.

Some Benefits of Smart Grids Using Renewable Energy Sources

  • More reliable – variations in weather are evened out and we do not have to depend on n just one source and one transmission cable.
  • Reduced operation costs – not to mention the reduced danger to the workers repairing damaged cables.
  • More consumer control – you can not only control your home environment better but also make economies more easily.
  • Improved efficiency – why pay for what you do not want?
  • Reduced vulnerability to vandalism and cyber-attack – multiple sources and multiple supply lines.
  • More information for consumers – understanding your bills is more transparent
  • Less pollution – reduced the carbon footprint and helps slow down global warming.

The systems are also more versatile. What you need in an urban American City differs from what is needed in a rural African society for example. Many ingenious solutions for reducing energy theft have been implemented.

One example is the highly visible maypole like distribution in Khayelitsha, Cape Town. Stealing power undetected here would be hard because everyone can see the installation high up.

The Future for You

Another energy bill lands on your doorstep. You open it with a feeling of curiosity.

What savings have you managed to make since the last bill?

How does it compare to one year ago, before you connected to the new micro-renewable energy grid?

You feel satisfied that it was worth the hard work in changing to renewable energy – no blackouts at inconvenient moments. And the bill is less than you expected

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