Smart Transformers Aim to Power Homes and Electric Cars
Just before the first electric vehicles (EV) rolled into garages in late 2010, there was speculation that transformers would be exploding in neighborhoods if multiple cars were plugged in at the same time around a cul-de-sac.
Each car, such as the Nissan Leaf, has an electrical load similar to a house. For a transformer that is built to handle only so much electricity , too many EVs can overload it and cause it to fail.
But it doesn't have to be that way. Transformers, which adjust the voltage coming off power lines and into homes, are getting smarter. What was once a dependable piece of equipment that delivered power safely into homes now needs to be more sophisticated about how it sends that electricity . Smart transformers were named one of MIT Technology Review's Emerging Technologies of 2011, but in reality they are just one piece of power electronics that are evolving to meet the demand for greater efficiency and more sophisticated monitoring on the grid
Transformers are the major source of energy loss on the distribution circuit, said Gary Rackliffe, VP of Smart Grids for ABB, a company that deals in power and automation technologies.
The U.S. Department of Energy already requires new transformers to be more efficient. The larger problem, however, is that most of the transformers sitting atop telephone poles aren't well matched with the electricity needs of the area they serve.
Replacing transformers with more efficient models that don't deliver too much power where it goes to waste could mean the need for less power generation overall. Utilities can now use smart meters to better monitor how much electricity buildings are using and use that to better match the load to the equipment.
Smart transformers, which have sensor packages to measure voltage and temperature, are already available to utilities -- along with other intelligent devices that can help manage the voltage and two-way flow of power as more distributed renewable resources come onto the grid.
There are also advances to allow transformers to switch between alternating current, which is what houses use, and direct current. Rackliffe said that these devices, being developed by ABB in conjunction with North Carolina State University, would probably have niche applications in coming years, like in a neighborhood that has a data center, which uses DC power. Eventually they could be used in communities with a lot of solar arrays.
If a neighborhood full of solar panels and EVs seems far off, there are other immediate benefits to a more connected grid: Shorter, more isolated power outages.
Customers might see an outage, Rackliffe told InnovationNewsDaily, but instead of an hour, they can automatically re-energize everyone except those connected to the [fault] within minutes.
10 Technologies Poised to Transform our World
Car Plastics Made from Bananas & Pineapples Rival Kevlar Armor
Top 7 Ambient Energy Technologies