Infrastructure: Smart customers seek smart grids

At Tel Aviv conference, experts hail smart grids as future of energy management as solutions to conserving energy and money for households and governments.

May 24, 2013 00:07
Garden of Gethsemane

The electricity tower outside the Garden of Gethsemane 370. (photo credit: MELANIE LIDMAN)

While expensive and often complex to implement, smart grids and smart energy management will be the solution to conserving energy and money for households and governments across the globe, experts agreed at a Tel Aviv conference on Wednesday.

“The evolving smart grid is going to be the biggest gift of 21st-century technology,” said Reji Kumar Pillai, president of the India Smart Grid Forum.

Pillai was addressing the second Conference on Smart Energy, organized by Israel NewTech, the Economy and Trade Ministry, the Israel Export Institute and the Israeli Smart Energy Association.

As the world’s natural resources continue to deplete and energy demand rises, the concept of smart energy becomes increasingly attractive for both business and government – despite the heavy price tags, according to Ofer Sachs, CEO of the Israel Export Institute.

There is vast array of definitions around the world for the terms smart energy and smart grid. Yasha Hain, senior executive vice president of the Israel Electric Corporation, said he “found about eight definitions of smart grid” when preparing for his conference presentation.

“The smart grid brings together the idea of grid modernization and the closer integration of all actors in our electricity system,” Hain said, adding that the concept requires that players “synchronize and optimize the electrical system of your own home and of the big grid.”

When implementing smart grids, it is necessary to ensure a robust transmission system, as the integration of renewable energy sources – particularly wind and photovoltaic – can be quite challenging for the electrical operator, he explained.

The transmission system and distribution network must enable “the stable flow of electricity,” and provide quality power, cyber security and energy efficiency, according to Hain. In addition, three “main smart issues” are vital to the smart grid’s existence – the smart customer, the smart utility and the smart market.

Comparing the smart grid to the human body, Hain said that the nerves would be the smart meters, the brains would be the demand-response and energy management systems, and the muscle would be distributed energy generation from a variety of sources as well as energy storage. The bones would be new transmission lines of high-voltage direct current (HVDC) and superconductor form, as well as new transformers and substation equipment.

Equally important to the smart grid is the idea of the “smart city,” Hain said.

While a “smart city” is also a loaded phase with many definitions, it can generally be described as one that is economically and environmentally sustainable, and thrives off of modern information and communication technology and infrastructural networks.

Smart grid investments provide intelligent energy infrastructure that can link various parts of the city, but smart city programs can help build consumer awareness about energy efficiency, Hain explained. Whether focusing on smart grid or smart city programs or both, the biggest challenge, however, is to extend the pilot programs into citywide developments, he said.

Thus far in Israel, the Israel Electric Corporation has embarked upon a small smart grid pilot program that is ongoing in Binyamina and Givat Ada, and will include 14,000 residents, 3,100 three-phase meters and 1,000 one-phase meters.

The government decided in August 2010 to initiate a smart grid pilot, with the tender for the integrator issued only in May 2012. After the Public Utility Authority decided not to recognize the project costs, there were delays, and the IEC ultimately decided to do the integration in-house, Hain said. This choice will shorten the project start from three years to one year, with all pilot customers receiving their meters by the end of February 2014, he said.

The main question, however, is figuring out how to finance the enormous costs associated with launching a smart grid or smart city, a task that can be quite challenging as the benefits are not always immediately visible.

Hain argued that the roll-out of smart grids will be economically feasible for the national economy, with the break-even point occurring at a 4-percent energy efficiency increase and at 10% of peak energy use shaved. When conducting a cost-benefit analysis, he stressed that environmental benefits must be included.

“It’s a daunting business case because some of the benefits tend to be soft,” said Michael Avidan, senior manager of the PG&E utility in California. “The power industry is a lot about ‘we will build it and then they will come.’ Take [electrical vehicles], for example; should we wait for EVs to come and then build the infrastructure, or should we build the infrastructure and then they will come?” Ultimately, producers must take such benefits into consideration, and the Energy and Water Ministry is working to weigh these factors and estimate their economic implications, said Shaul Zemach, ministry director- general. In doing so, the industry will be able to show the regulator where it must open the door to new technologies, rather than waiting for the regulator to make such decisions, he said.

In addition to taking the soft benefits into account, Zemach emphasized the importance of the two-way communication between the provider and supplier to these systems. For instance, just as a smartphone GPS application may ask a driver if he wants to stop for coffee or other advertised products, a smart meter could ask customers if they want to receive a discount for conserving energy during specific hours.

In California, the smart grid system has already begun to take off, with 10 million smart meter upgrades completed by 2012 – the largest such deployment in the United States, Avidan said. Calling his firm, PG&E, “the greenest utility,” Avidan said that the company thrives on renewables, with a great amount of hydroelectric and nuclear resources as well as the largest solar customer base in the country, accounting for more than 40% of the US’s total installed solar capacity. The smart meter deployment began 18 months ago, he said.

“We used to send meter readers to get a meter read,” Avidan continued. “We didn’t really have a good understanding of customer usage, and now we have a much better sense of what that looks like.”

Gas meters can now be read on a daily, automated basis and electricity meters can be read hourly or at 15- minute intervals, he said. While saying that California is still “on a journey” despite the successful deployment, Avidan stressed that energy officials must master an understanding of three categories before implementing a smart grid: the necessary technology; policy elements like legislation, market rules and regulation; and specific market attributes such as demographics, weather and physical constraints.

In India, such constraints are particularly challenging, as many portions of the grid are not strong enough to handle 24/7 stable electricity supplies, said Pillai, the India Smart Grid Forum president. Part of his organization’s role is therefore to determine “how to leverage new and emerging technologies” to help manage India’s grid, where power demand has doubled in the past decade.

Pillai believes Israeli innovators may be able to find huge business opportunities in “the myriad of challenges of the Indian power sector.”

“To manage this kind of a growing complex grid we need smarter technologies,” Pillai said.

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