Smartgrids: The future of Power Distribution

In late July last year, India presented to the world its worst blackout in history as over 600 million people lost power over several days. The embarrassment, as the Wall Street Journal commented, “put on vivid display, for Indians and the world, how rickety the country’s basic infrastructure is.” And while certain states were accused of overdrawing their quota, the scapegoating masked a more fundamental problem: an antiquated distribution network.

India is not alone. In most developed countries, the power grid is decades behind what it should be; the only difference: they recognize the planet’s rising energy demands, the paramount importance of distribution efficiency and are working to improve while India, as always, remains the laggard.

How did operators keep tabs on each other during the July fiasco? Probably by making cross-country calls to figure out what the bleep happened. If a State actually overdraws its quota, ways need to be devised to measure it, to regulate and prevent such catastrophes. Without a digitized power ‘ledger’, blackouts will seemingly develop out of nowhere, like hurricanes.

Which is why, there have been worldwide efforts to introduce a ‘smart grid’, one that the US Dept. of Energy hopes, can “self-heal from power disturbances.” In fact, it was one of Obama’s top priorities on the 2008 campaign trail. “He envisioned a national network of high-voltage transmission lines that would connect windy and sunny areas to cities, as well as smart meters… that would give us real-time feedback and control over our energy use.” Writes Michael Grunwald for Time Business. “He basically wanted to merge the grid with the Internet, so we could adjust our air conditioners with our iPhones when we were out of the house, program our appliances to save us energy and money and sell power from solar panels and electric cars back to our utilities.” As expected, politics hindered Obama’s vision, and as idealism returned to earth from soaring heights, he compromised from a suggested $100 billion in seed money to 11.

The apt analogy is online file sharing: soon electricity will have its seeders and leechers. Anyone with an electric connection will be a broker. And if this technology sounds revolutionary, it’s really not. The world’s energy needs would have been long addressed, had American money not been funneled to meaningless endeavours like wars, campaigns and building smarter smartphones.

On the technical front, the catchword has been ‘synchrophasors’. In case of a freak blackout, oftentimes result of cascading effects, this device will help determine “which failures came first, and which were merely effects of the first failures,” writes Matthew Wald on his NYTIMES blog, further comparing them to “traffic cameras at major intersections.”  While existing devices report back every two to three seconds, “an eternity in the world of the high-voltage grid”, synchrophasors do so 30 times a second. Wald hopes synchrophasors will be preventive, not forensic. “With more frequent sampling, grid operators will be able to see disturbances as they begin to develop, and take compensating actions, like shifting the location where power is being added to the system.”

Where is India in this race? Let’s just say that China is so far ahead, it isn’t even scooped dust hovering on the horizon. On a more optimistic note, in November, Crompton Greaves announced the intention to build a greenfield plant in Bangalore, to deploy smart grid technologies within the country. And, typically, an analyst from a domestic brokerage, according to DNA INDIA, commented – “We will believe it when we see it.”

Such a negative attitude is not surprising, upon taking into account a recent political reshuffling at the centre, where a certain minister refused to comply with capitalist demands and got relegated to the ‘unimportant’ ministry of science and technology. Budget constraints, bureaucratic morasses and political hurdles continue to impede progress.

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