Utilities inject smarts into the electrical grid

Tantalus WANIf you were to ask two people what a smart energy/smart grid concept is you'd probably get various meanings.

On one hand, there's the idea of replacing meters on the site of the home that would communicate with utility's back office billing system with real-time information. Other utilities, however, are not ready to make the investment in upgrading their own internal network facilities, including substations and transmission equipment.

In other words, a smart grid system could be broken up into two distinct elements:

  • Grid Modernization: In this segment of a smart energy deployment, the electric utility will automate respective transmission and distribution functions with IP-based communications. For example, a utility could install remote cameras to monitor how a transmission point is functioning.
  • Home Area Network (HAN): Otherwise known as the "Home Grid," the HAN can communicate with the utility power network via powerline network or RF-based network standards such as Zigbee, INSTEON, or WiFi. At the home, the user could get information from the utility on their usage patterns from a web portal or a smart energy device (thermostat). Utilities could potentially turn off consumer devices (dishwashers, air conditioners) if they need to free up more power.

Regardless of how you define it, municipal electric and large utilities alike are converging on some smart energy path. Electric utilities are either building out their own specialized networks or are turning to wireless or wireline providers to rent network facilities.

Smart grid - basic grid arch schematic

The benefit for the utility obviously is that they could look at electric usage patterns and identify outages, while customers could get a better handle on their own usage patterns.

Still, as Qwest Communications points out, smart grid "is one of the more overused terms in the history what I have seen," said Travis Leo, director of product management for high speed Internet services at Qwest, which has been conducting a test with Xcel Energy for an integrated powerline/DSL-enabled smart grid deployment.

"Some ... are just using for meter reading, while others are using it for monitoring backhaul points. The good news is that a smarter energy infrastructure is good for the environment, good for shareholders and for the bottom line."

Utilities inject smarts into the electrical grid