'

A truly SmartGrid must be flexible

The distance between a flexible grid and everything I've read about a SmartGrid is the distance between a SmartGrid and today's grid. If we're going to build on a 40-50 year time horizon we need the grid to be a buyer of power, not just a smart seller.

John Dodge is giving us great coverage of GridWeek this week . (Picture from CNET. The source is here.)

This is an important topic. It is also, almost by its definition, deadly dull. It's also such a massive undertaking that it's vital we get the design right now, because we're going to be living with it for generations.

So let me add my two cents, a single word, a vital word, a key word that would distinguish a truly smart grid from one that is just smart for the grid owner.

Flexible.

It's one thing to be able to monitor electricity use, to price it differently at different times, and to de-couple the delivery of power from operation of the grid. But that's not enough.

A flexible grid can buy from any source, and sell to any source. A truly flexible grid produces a market for power and can off-load the excess, making it portable.

Already, wind farms are being turned off when demand for their power slows. Already corporate solar projects are being shelved because they might produce more power than their owners consume, and power is being wasted.

Let me explain what I mean. All buildings have roofs. All the land has wind. There is geothermal energy beneath every foot of ground., A flexible grid will be able to buy power from individuals and building owners when the solar or wind energy they're producing is more than is needed at that moment.

This same design will enable the creation of small geothermal plants inside cities and suburbs. Once it's clean and green and quiet, why not site it where the market is? That's a concept that will blow your mind today, but it won't in 10-12 years. And the result is you won't lose half the power getting it to market.

For all that to happen meters have to be able to run backward. There need to be two wires going into every location, one for selling and one for buying. Sub-stations must become exchanges where excess power is turned into hydrogen, ammonia or some other portable power source. Fuel cells need to become ubiquitous, so as prices drive down the market grows organically.

What else might a flexible grid mean?

  1. Blackouts disappear if fuel cells turn on once supplies run down, and hydrogen or ammonia is readily available to power them.
  2. Everyone has an incentive to create power as well as save power.
  3. You eliminate single points of failure, like today's major power switching stations and distant power plants.

A flexible grid, in other words, can no more be taken down than today's Internet can. A flexible grid will route power around blockages. It will make everyone a potential seller of power as well as a buyer. It will make electrical power truly portable by converting excess power into fuel.

The distance between a flexible grid and everything I've read about a SmartGrid is as big as the distance between a SmartGrid and today's grid. But if we're going to build on a 40-50 year time horizon, as we should, we need to think in terms of flexibility, not just intelligence.

You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one. Or am I?

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com