How Future Power Grids Will Grow Smarter
VANCOUVER — Today's electricity supply mostly flows through huge, centralized power grids from power plants to homes and businesses. Tomorrow's world, however, will likely require smarter grids that can handle swarms of plugged-in electric cars, juggle renewable energy sources with fossil fuel plants and even switch off idle electronic gadgets inside people's homes.
Power grids could also shrink in size compared to the centralized grids first built by U.S. inventor Thomas Edison in New York City more than a century ago. Such "microgrids" could intelligently meet the energy demands of a city or region with a mix of local renewable energy and some fossil fuels such as natural gas for backup, according to energy experts at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Vancouver on Feb. 19.
"It leads you into a system that is essentially distributed generation with a bunch of microgrids," said John MacDonald, chairman and CEO of Day4 Energy Inc. "Once we get there, it's the exact opposite of what we have today, which is a big, centralized grid."
The Canadian province of British Columbia (Vancouver included) already gets 90 percent of its energy from hydroelectric power, said Kip Morison, chief technology officer at the BC Hydro electric utility company. His company has begun studying how smart grids can help deal with future energy demands — an especially strong concern if more local drivers turn to electric cars.
"We have the highest ratio of gasoline prices to electricity prices — high gas prices and very low electricity prices — in all of North America," Morison explained. "So there's a very compelling reason for people here to buy an electric vehicle."
Developing countries such as India could have a "huge opportunity" from not having to adapt older "legacy" grids to smarter, smaller grids, said Geza Joos, an electrical and computer engineer at McGill University in Montreal. That's because starting from scratch allows countries to build the "smart" technologies right into the power stations and transmission lines.
But it also assumes countries are willing to take the time and thoughtfulness to build up smart, smaller grids for local regions, said Reza Iravani, an electrical and computer engineer at the University of Toronto. He added that the demand for energy almost always grows faster than the supply in developing countries.
"If there are developing economies that are primarily putting their focus and competitive advantage on cheap labor and cheap energy, they may not have the same kind of opportunity or resolve to move towards a different level of energy distribution," said Hassan Farhangi, an electrical engineer at the British Columbia Institute of Technology in Canada.
That could easily describe China — a country that is building the world's largest transmission network to connect hundreds of coal power plants feeding its energy-hungry population. Such a centralized system probably won't evolve into microgrids for a very long time.
"I have no doubt there are a lot of smarts there [in their grid]," Morison said. "Whether it'll be clean and distributed like we're talking about in this forum, I think that's a ways off."