Smart Grid, Part 1: The Intersection of the Power and ICT Fields

Although I have not abandoned the green IT/data center field, I have also started following smart grid. Smart grid includes the three areas of power, IT, and communications. In this post, I’ll briefly touch on how ICT is used in smart grid.

The power system consists of generation, transmission, and distribution. Let’s start with distribution, which also has three parts: the distribution network, field area network/automated meter infrastructure (FAN/AMI), and the home. Today I’ll talk about the home aspect.

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The Different Types of UPS systems
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A smart meter installed at home provides power usage information as an aggregate. By observing my hourly power usage information, I can understand my usage. (By the way, I do not think we have any dynamic pricing yet, as the usage and the charge for it are proportional.) This is great progress, but I would like to see a more detailed breakdown. For example, there is a spike in the middle of the night when I shut down all but essential appliances like the refrigerator. I would like to know if this spike comes from the refrigerator’s defrosting cycle or something akin to it.

To support more-detailed information, each appliance and other electronic device must be able to report its power use to the smart meter or some other collection point in the house. To do this, we need a module to meter power usage as well as some kind of communication function. A new set of appliances and electronic gear may come with the metering chip or firmware installed, but we need a dongle for the existing ones. The dongle business would be only until our current appliances are all replaced by new ones that have the chip or firmware. As for communication, we need a mechanism to transmit the power usage information to the smart meter and/or some collection point. The communication should be two-way because, when demand and response (D/R) is implemented, each appliance and other electronic gear must receive a D/R signal and respond to it. Whirlpool, for example, has announced that it would include such a function in all its new appliances. The candidates for the communications technology include HomePlug, ZigBee, Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, and 6lowpan. None of them is designated as a standard by NIST, though.

Right now, the only way I can get my power usage information is to access PG&E’s website. The information is delayed more than 24 hours. Even though this is progress over the one-month-late information on the bill, I want to receive more minute and real-time information. Unless the data sent over to PG&E are available to me, I cannot do anything with them. However, if its own collection module is embedded in each appliance and electronic device, any power usage information, whether aggregate or individual, can be readily available. The metering frequency can be adjusted at our discretion. Once such data become available, they can be displayed on any of several dashboardlike software applications now available. Google and Microsoft provide free software, while companies like Opower sell their own versions. Opower works with utilities to provide its product. PG&E has not worked with either Google or Microsoft, stating that it wants to wait for the standard.

The home market may be large, but the technical barrier to entering it does not seem to be too daunting. The chip or firmware for metering power usage is a commodity. The communications protocols are well known and do not appear to be hard to implement. Once the power usage data are available, collection, aggregation, analysis, and display are very straightforward, and I do not see much differentiation in the technology itself. So probably the key to this market is how well each vendor and service provider can work with utilities. After all most consumers are not engineers and would like to have an easy solution. On top of that, power consumers deal with their utility, and adopting the solutions provided by their utility may feel easier.

By the way, as one of the speakers at SVLG’s energy summit, I find my interest in checking the hourly use of power waning. After all, I cannot see the breakdown or real-time usage. I will talk about the FAN/AMI area later.

Zen Kishimoto

About Zen Kishimoto

Seasoned research and technology executive with various functional expertise, including roles in analyst, writer, CTO, VP Engineering, general management, sales, and marketing in diverse high-tech and cleantech industry segments, including software, mobile embedded systems, Web technologies, and networking. Current focus and expertise are in the area of the IT application to energy, such as smart grid, green IT, building/data center energy efficiency, and cloud computing.

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