Telecom Council and Cleantech Council meet at Ericsson in Santa Clara in September to review the challenges and opportunities for innovation and startups at the intersection of the communications and energy industries where bi-directional, high-speed, reliable, and secure data communications are transforming the industry.
Silicon Valley, California, September 13, 2022/Meeting Recap/ Just like an aging parent, the grid is wearing down in parts, breaking in others. The various components were never meant to perform this gargantuan task for this long, and we need to shift the work to a newer generation. Thomas Edison launched the first grid himself in 1882. It was a DC grid serving 80 customers and 400 lights. Tesla’s AC grids were a competing view, but AC had challenges of making sure all power was phase-synchronized on the same 60Hz sine wave. But AC won out, because it was easier to transform the electricity to higher or lower voltages, meaning it could be stepped up for better long-range transmission. By around 1920, most cities had their AC grids. Most rural homes were connected a decade or so later. And our grid has been running along steadily ever since.
But it’s not just that our grid is aging, and needs a new coat of paint. The 20th century grid is not designed for the 21st century. It’s not 400 light bulbs out there with predictable demand. As we eschew carbon energy, and electrify, more and more electric demand is emerging, for cars, HVAC, & industry. And the predictability of that demand is more complicated. Increasingly severe weather makes the peak demand spikes…more peaky. Solar and wind are clean and economical…but unreliable. Distributed energy production reduced the need to carry energy as far, but is increasingly the complexity of the networks. The modern grid needs to handle all of the conventional challenges, larger overall demand, environmental concerns, and skyrocketing complexity. So, we need a Smart Grid.
What’s The Smart Grid
Smart Grid means different things to different industry sectors.
To the Grid Operators, the grid has always been somewhat smart. It’s been closely monitored, and a variety of actions have always been taken based on real time circumstances, such that power supply exactly matched power demand. Automatic breakers and actuators could always react to short-circuits, downed lines, demand spikes, etc. To Grid Operators, Smart Grid simply means more, MUCH more of that. More sensors collecting more data. And those sensors, formerly mostly on the core high voltage elements of the grid are getting pushed out to the edges, to the CPE. More sensors means more data, more data means analytics tools, machine learning, AI, and automated decisions. These decisions are made by, and acted on, by Advanced Distribution Management System (ADMS) and Distribution Automation (DA) technologies. For these companies, the Smart Grid is about grid resilience, better information, and better management.
To Consumers, the smart grid is more about their homes, and how their homes can participate in spot energy markets through local production, storage, and arbitrage. And also how their homes can cooperate with Demand Management, by using less energy when the grid has less available to share. Consumers can be motived to do this out of goodwill, but price signals are more effective, and help customers justify capital expenditures on modern “Smart Appliances”.
To Other Industries, smart grid means helping manage aggregate demand (Demand Response for power consumers), but also the opportunity to become a player in the energy markets. Companies of all kinds have opportunity to generate power, store and arbitrage power, or collaborate with grid operators to smooth loads on an ongoing basis, say mining Cryptocurrency in low-demand hours. Still other players, like Tesla with their powerwalls, can aggregate this storage network and offer a fairly substantial on-demand Virtual Power Plant (VPP). Tesla benefits from its role there as middle-man aggregator in the arbitrage.
Grid Operators & Telecom Networks
We learned in our meeting how many Smart Grid operators need increasingly connected devices with extremely high reliability and low-latency. As such, many have historically deployed their own networks. Today, they are expanding these private networks to include private LTE designed for high reliability more than throughput. But they also need to avail themselves of telecom services from the telcos, and are increasingly looking at 5G as a fabric, at least for redundancy if not primary.
Aside from mission-critical IIOT networks to manage the high-voltage grid, the grid operators also use best-effort networks and technologies to connect the various smart meters on homes and businesses. Connected meters allow them to offer time-of-use billing, which is a critical tool to manage demand via price signals to the market.
What Will The Modern Grid Look Like?
It’s going to have a high level of complexity. Power no longer only flows one way, and sectors that are net consumers one minute may be net producers another. More power customers will be exposed to spot pricing, as a way of managing demand and supply. Sensors will be placed everywhere, and that data will be aggregated and used for safety, matching supply and demand, spot pricing, communicating to smart appliances, billing, and more. Production, and storage will join consumption at the edge - Distributed everything. This will enable things like Micro Grids – a segment of a grid that has some generation, some storage, and some demand, and could theoretically be isolated and operate autonomously for some period of time.
And increasingly creative storage solutions will emerge. We’re going to see a mix of industrial-scale renewables and storage solutions that benefit from scale economies AND smaller Distributed renewable and storage that benefits from being close to demand. And increased automation to handle all of this complexity, both for Grid operators, industry, and consumers.
Thanks to our host, Ericsson, to our expert panel and to the startup presenters. Presentations are available to Telecom Council and Cleantech Council members in the Library.