Most disruptive ideas, like the PC and the smartphone, combine existing elements in a way that provides a dramatically better solution. The same holds true for the smart grid.
The proliferation of smart networked embedded systems, widely distributed throughout the grid, will revolutionize the way electricity is produced, consumed and distributed. Like the IT revolution that drives it, the energy technology (ET) revolution will bring dramatic innovations that make energy cheaper, cleaner and more abundant.
The American electrification efforts that began in the 1870s were extended segment by segment to reach almost the entire U.S. population by 1950. Like the United States, most countries around the world incorporated technologies spanning generations when building their electrical grids. Today, these grids are some of the most complex, interconnected machines in the world. Many powerful transformations, driven by new technologies, have occurred since the start of electrification; now technology is poised to revolutionize the grid itself.
Smart grid technologies are tackling technical challenges that limit the openness, reliability and efficiency of energy production and distribution. One challenge is that electrical energy is not stored in significant quantities today, which makes it difficult for grid operators to manage the peaks and valleys in supply and demand that occur on the hottest and coldest days of the year. The emergence of electric vehicles will dramatically increase the amount of storage capacity on the grid, but it will also increase the peak demands for charging the vehicles.
For grid operators, that creates both a challenge and an opportunity that smart grid technology will address. Energy storage will make it easier to manage large amounts of energy from solar and wind sources, which are inherently variable in their production.
Another major challenge is grid reliability. The United States has 300,000 miles of interconnected power lines. Imbalances in supply and demand result in wasted power and often lead to interruptions that cost roughly $150 billion a year, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Smart grid technology will address those issues by automatically predicting and responding to shifting loads, rerouting power around obstructions, introducing distributed storage and renewable generation, and even identifying and locating faults to dispatch repair crews with the appropriate equipment.
Reconfigurable embedded instrumentation and control systems such as CompactRIO provide an ideal combination of technologies and features to address the most difficult smart grid challenges. Powered by LabView and reconfigurable FPGAs, these user-programmable, field-updateable smart devices can perform multiple digital signal processing and control tasks in parallel and in real-time. Modern analog-to-digital converters and sensors, meanwhile, provide high-fidelity electrical measurements while synchronizing on a global scale. In addition, emerging network communication protocols such as IEC 61850 are being defined to ensure network interoperability and compatibility from the smart sensor to the cloud.
For example, reconfigurable I/O technology is improving grid efficiency in India, where NexGen Consultancy Pvt. Ltd. uses LabView and CompactRIO for a substation automated meter reader (AMR) with advanced power measurement capabilities. The system monitors both the 11-kV incoming transmission line power and the 440-V outgoing power to characterize the efficiency of the substation transformer. It also monitors the transformer oil level and temperature, and it communicates via cellular networks to a central supervisory control and data acquisition system.
NexGen is deploying a version of this system built on NI Single-Board RIO hardware to 2,820 substations throughout the Indian state of Rajasthan.
Installing distributed smart sensors is the only way to fully characterize the efficiency of the grid. The NexGen AMR system promises to improve power distribution in India, reducing the estimated 30 percent power losses that the current distribution system incurs.
|Brian MacCleery is the principal product manager for clean energy technology at National Instruments. He holds bachelor's and master's degrees in electrical engineering from Virginia Tech.|
|Matt Spexarth is a product manager for NI Single-Board RIO at National Instruments. He holds a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Kansas State University.|