Rise of the Modern Smart Grid

PCTI and the Rise of the Modern Smart Grid

When Russian scientist Georg Wilhelm Richmann was electrocuted in 1753, he became the first recorded person to die while conducting electrical experiments. He was attempting to replicate Benjamin Franklin’s famous kite/key experiment which demonstrated, for the first time, that lightning and static electricity were the same. Eighty-one years later, in 1834, history was made when Thomas Davenport demonstrated the first electric motor that had enough power to perform a task: it powered a small-scale printing press. In 1879, San Francisco’s California Electric Company began to supply multiple customers with power for their electric-arc lamps. This was the first case of a utility selling electricity from a central plant to multiple customers via transmission lines.

It took a while for scientists, engineers, and industrialists to get the hang of power transmission. Just eight years after its launch, Thomas Edison’s Manhattan power plant, which opened in 1882 with eighty-five customers, burned to the ground. The history of long-distance electric-power transmission, with illustrious names such as Westinghouse, Tesla, and Edison, is fascinating in both its dazzle and its “frazzle.” And although accidents still happen, thanks to modern technological advancements and regulation, electric power transmission is relatively safe.

Good-bye "Dumb" Grids!

Most of us have by now heard the term “smart phone” or “smart bomb,” but what does it mean to be “smart?” Well, really what we’re talking about is digital vs analog. Up until relatively recently, the electrical grid was analog, requiring meter-readers and consumption forecasting. Power plants were necessarily large and located close to sources of fuel, such as a railroad, canal, or pipeline, or connected to a large dam as in the case of hydropower. For redundancy and continuity, power plants became interconnected. Planning, communication, and emergency response required phone calls between live people.

Smart grids use digital monitoring, control, and communication to provide reliable, cost-effective power in a safe and secure manner

Hello Smart Grids!

The advent of digital communication and digital technologies have given rise to the smart grid. These electricity networks integrate the habits and actions of all front-end providers, end-users, and hybrid provider-users. Smart grids use digital monitoring, control, and communication to provide reliable, cost-effective power in a safe and secure manner that better permits a reduction in carbon footprint. Decentralized energy production and storage means less danger from severe weather, natural disasters, or terrorism.

The European Union Task Force on Smart Grids summarizes it nicely here.

The Smart Grids:

  • Better facilitate the connection and operation of generators of all sizes and technologies.
  • Allow consumers to play a part in optimizing the operation of the system.
  • Provide consumers with greater information and options for how they use their supply.
  • Significantly reduce the environmental impact of the whole electricity supply system.
  • Maintain or even improve the existing high levels of system reliability, quality, and security of supply.
  • Maintain and improve the existing services efficiently.

A Perfect Storm

Many things have come together to create the conditions for the rise of the smart grid. As mentioned above, digital communication and technologies are an integral part. However, many other factors are involved.

Renewable energy sources were the source of about 17% of total U.S. electricity generation in 2019

Renewables: The 1970s saw an interest in renewable energy. Today, renewable energy sources provide an increasing share of U.S. electricity. Renewable energy sources, e.g. solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, and hydroelectric, were the source of about 17% of total U.S. electricity generation in 2019. Currently, ten states have committed to achieving 100% renewable energy goals. Renewable power capacity, led by solar PV, is expected to expand 50% by 2024. The incoming presidential administration’s energy policy has a goal of a 100% clean-energy economy and net-zero emissions no later than 2050.

Mass Utility-Scale Energy Storage: Energy storage is an emerging market providing utility and commercial users with reduced costs and renewable options. The emergence of safer and cost-efficient lithium-ion batteries has made large-scale energy storage a reality. Mass utility-scale energy storage systems provide backup emergency power during outages. These systems also save money by generating energy quickly during peak hours and storing excess energy during non-peak hours. Energy storage systems tie renewable wind and solar energy to the grid. They are unique because they can store, for example, wind energy, generated during non-peak hours when demand is low. This energy can be pushed back into the grid during peak hours when the cost and demand is higher. This process is known and peak shaving.

Microgrids: A microgrid similarly uses energy storage technology to strengthen emergency preparedness plans, as a substitute for a utility grid or to make a power source more resilient to grid failure. These microgrids are smaller, more independently controlled, and located closer to their power-generating structures or independent from power generation entirely. This allows greater control of one’s power usage as well as offering protection from main-grid failure. A grid-tied microgrid can be used solely for backup power during an outage or for additional power during costlier peak hours.

A completely independent microgrid can often be used to provide power to remote areas anywhere on the earth where power before was unavailable. For instance, the Kashmiri village of Batambis, at 14,000 feet elevation in the Himalayas, is snowed-in six months a year and had no power supply. They now have a solar-microgrid (lots of sunshine at 14,000 feet!) supplying their 48 families with reliable power. The village has now become a tourist destination, improving their economic situation and supplying the revenue to maintain the microgrid.

A renewables-tied microgrid is an example of a hybrid provider-user. The output from renewables is unpredictable and often highest during times of low demand. By storing the energy generated by renewables, the energy can be metered out during times of high demand. Microgrids can be customized to meet the unique demands of residential areas, industrial parks, or even whole cities.

Electrification of Ground Transportation: The advent of the lithium ion battery is having a major impact on the transportation sector. The new administration’s energy policy will seek to provide every American city with 100,000 or more residents with high-quality, zero-emissions public transportation options. Research has predicted that 54,000 electric 18-wheelers will be on the road by 2025. Municipal and local, light-duty trucks are becoming electrified at an astounding rate. With the world’s largest sanitation department, NYC has partnered with Mack Trucks to begin replacing their garbage-truck fleet with the LR Electric Garbage Truck in furtherance of their goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050. And electrified highways are coming soon. With an e-highway, e-trucks connect to the overhead cables and recharge their onboard batteries as they drive. A one-mile long test strip has been built between the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the two largest ports in the U.S.

Maritime Electrification: Tugboats, fire-boats, cable-laying ships, and ferries have a huge potential for electrification. The ferry is the perfect application for electric ships. Many ferries are moderate-sized ships with shorter routes, so range is less of an issue. They also have set points of departure. This means that the berths at each port can be equipped with the proper battery chargers to recharge the ship while passengers and vehicles disembark/embark. And since the global ferry industry is similar in size to the commercial airline industry, transporting approximately 2.1 billion passengers, 250 million vehicles, and 32 million trailers per year (and that doesn’t include China), the push towards electrification will be strong. In fact, Alabama’s Gee’s Bend Ferry, the first zero-emission, all-electric passenger/vehicle ferry in the U.S., recently observed its first anniversary. If tied to renewable sources of energy, these electric ships can be truly zero-emissions.

The Next Chapter

What would Mr. Volt, Mr. Ohm, Mr. Ampere, Mr. Hertz, or Mr. Watt think of all this? Would Mr. Richmann be “shocked” to see today’s electric grid?  These early pioneers of electricity, along with early industrialists like Edison and Westinghouse, could not have foreseen today’s electricity landscape. They were all on the front-lines of a new chapter in science and culture. Recently, we have begun a new chapter in electrification called the smart grid and this science will undoubtedly be a watershed cultural moment.

The modern smart grid pulls together all aspects of electric power.

  • Orthodox power generation (fossil fuels)
  • Mass utility-scale energy storage
  • Renewables: solar, hydro, wind, and wave/tidal
  • Hybrid and all-electric maritime application
  • Medium and heavy-duty electric vehicles
  • Data management systems
  • Microgrids
  • Manufacturing and industrial applications
  • Transmission systems
  • Distribution systems
PCTI and our partners manufacture and supply power electronics equipment for every smart grid application

Because of the ultra-high power niche that PCTI occupies and our particular scope of products, PCTI is uniquely suited to address any of the modern smart grid applications shown in the graphic above with a variety of different combinations of our products. Typically, the set of products that can be combined for any of these applications include bidirectional DC/DC converters, Battery Chargers, DC/AC Inverters and DC Power Supplies in power ranges up to 2MW/2MVA.

PCTI and SPBES already have the products to stabilize grid power, reduce blackouts, provide emergency power, and electrify remote areas

Recently, PCTI partnered with SPBES, Sterling Plan B Energy Solutions. SPBES has created a modular lithium ion battery product line that is the next logical step in industrial applications. The SPBES multiple battery units, or racks, are designed as modular, stackable, and configurable energy storage systems. Additionally, the batteries are protected by their “CellCool Liquid Cooling” system which virtually eliminates the danger of fire often associated with Li-ion batteries. PCTI and SPBES already have the products to stabilize grid power, reduce blackouts, provide emergency power, and electrify remote areas. On a mass utility-scale, clean energy relies on industrial-grade power conversion products to transform and store sustainably sourced power.

Another partnership that PCTI recently formed is with Precision Power Products, PPP.  The move towards smart grids will mean an enormous opportunity for PCTI and our partner, PPP, in the energy sectors in India. The massive expansion of the nation’s energy infrastructure will require a staggering amount of hardware. PPP and its associated companies make a huge variety of products for the manufacturing and energy sectors including printed circuit boards, interactive technical manuals, control panels, distribution boards, junction panels/boxes, load testers, switchboards, relay panels, graphical user interfaces (GUIs), automatic changeover systems, fuse panels, master controls, power supply panels, transformers, and power supply units.

PPP is especially qualified to be involved with smart grids which require digital communication and feedback. They are involved with Internet Protocol Telephony (IPT) which facilitates the exchange of voice, fax, and other forms of information; Internet of Things (IoT), the network of physical objects embedded with sensors, software, and other technologies for the purpose of connecting different devices over the internet; robotics; the installation, integration, and maintenance of power grids, communication systems, security systems, and process control systems; and software solutions for a wide variety of industries and applications.

We're Ready!

Power Conversion Technologies, Inc., a woman-owned business, designs and manufactures equipment in response to the growing demand for power electronics in the highest power ranges.  PCTI has been addressing a new era in power electronics as applied to industrial equipment since 1991.

New materials and components are continually analyzed so that we may be able to pass increased quality and decreased cost on to the customer.  Equipment manufactured at PCTI has been designed for production efficiency and maintainability in order to provide the best value for the customer. PCTI’s staff has industrial applications expertise in the power conversion field dating from the introduction of industrial power electronics in the 1960’s to the modern industrial applications existing today and those that will exist tomorrow.

Please feel free to contact us for your power conversion/smart grid applications and share this blog on your social network sites!

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