Smart Grids – the grids of the future?

Increased and more wide-ranging use, the incorporation of renewable energy, the need for a secure supply – power grids face challenges which are becoming increasingly difficult to manage. The smart grids solution, which has been around for several years now, is beginning to be rolled out in major industrialized countries

What are smart grids?

The term “smart grid” (or “smart power distribution grid”) refers to the incorporation of information and communication technologies at the very heart of the grid (and its components) to improve the way it is managed. In real terms, sensors are installed at all strategic points in the domestic grid and connected to an IT network, so that they can transmit data to powerful software capable of analyzing multiple variables. This mass of individual data is then consolidated at a national level or supranational level (e.g. with the Super Smart Grid). This ability to communicate and process a wide range of data (about consumption, climate, forecasting, etc.) is why the grid is called “smart”. The objective is to allow production to be adjusted as closely as possible to consumption.

Smart grid objectives

This adjustment should lead to a reduction in consumption peaks by better distributing consumption over time. The staggered activation of particular household appliances often comes to mind, but it can also involve thermostat management, with automatic micro-adjustments imperceptible to the consumer. Pricing plans can also incorporate this approach, in order to raise end consumers’ awareness of how the grid works. In other words, smart grids reintroduce a demand-reduction potential (currently being phased out) via private individuals, by “consolidating” efforts agreed individually over millions of households.

Smart grids also aim to meet supply security requirements in light of the significant stresses caused by the continual increase in demand. They make it possible to more effectively incorporate volatile and/or decentralized energy sources (local photovoltaic, wind power, etc.) into the production mix. Overall, the grid’s stability is improved by the ability to anticipate production needs and localize them more accurately (including imports).

Expected benefits

In a country such as Taiwan, where the government has chosen to invest heavily in smart technology, possible savings are estimated at 10% of power consumption through automatic management of monitoring equipment and up to 20% by managing air-conditioning in the same way. From an environmental perspective, the US Department of Energy has indicated that by making the power grid 5% more efficient, Co2 emissions equivalent to 53 million cars will be avoided. Particularly since studies show genuine support for the idea among consumers.

In Europe, a poll by RGI (Renewables Grid Initiative, an NGO supported by many key players in the European power sector) even indicates that switching to a SuperSmartGrid would enable the grid to be powered entirely by renewable energies by 2050.

Nevertheless, smart grids should not be seen as a panacea. Firstly, they still pose problems in terms of access to users’ personal data, to which no definitive solution has so far been found. Secondly, their acceptability will depend on their capacity to demonstrate concrete benefits for consumers – special prices, reduced consumption, etc. Finally, their roll-out depends on households being fitted with smart meters – a programme which is still underway.

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