What is a smart grid? So, is there a dumb grid too?

We all depend on our electricity grid for power.

But, have you ever thought much about the grid? Frankly, I had not, until I entered the field of cleantech.

In fact, the only times I ever thought about those wires carrying electricity to my house were when there was a grid failure!

For most professionals from outside the energy and power sectors, the electricity grid is something that is taken for granted. Most of us see it as a dumb mix of poles and wires and bulky sub-stations.

This ordinary grid, is about become smart grid. Now, what the heck is a smart grid?

But before answering that, here’s another question: what is wrong with our current grid? Is it dumb or something?

Sort of yes.

Remarkable as it may seem, much of the thinking behind today’s power grid is based on design decisions originally published by NikolaTesla in 1888.


That must be about the time Bill Gates’ great grandfather was going to school.

A bit on the older side, our grid is, don’t you think?

While possibly valid for his time, Tesla’s assumptions like centralized power generation and unidirectional transmission are not so relevant now. For instance, rooftop-based solar power generation is a distributed power source, and many times it actually exports electricity to the grid.

So, let us say that the grid that a good part of the world is based on pretty old concepts and not exactly as intelligent and flexible as it ought to be.

Enter smart grid.

Depending on who you ask, you are likely to get different definitions for smart grid.

All definitions however are likely to have one aspect in common: Smart.

The smart grid essentially is an electricity grid that is intelligent; that it, it is able to collect a good amount of data or insights about both suppliers of electricity (usually the large power plants but increasingly also distributed sources such as rooftop solar power plants) and users of electricity (both industrial and residential users).

As a smart grid is able to collect inputs and synthesise these, it will be able to optimise both supply and demand of power in such a way that efficiency of the entire system is enhanced.

In addition to optimizing supply and demand, a smart grid can also use data and intelligence more effectively for prediction and forecasting of faults along the grid, leading to cost-effective preventive maintenance.

Some of the key components of a smart grid are:

  • Smart appliances capable of deciding when to consume power based on pre-set customer preferences. This can go a long way toward reducing peak loads – these loads significantly increase electricity generation costs.
  • Smart power meters featuring two-way communications between power consumers (you and me) and power suppliers to automate billing data collection, detect outages and dispatch repair crews to the correct location faster.
  • Smart substations that include monitoring and control of critical operational data
  • Smart distribution network that that has automated monitoring and analysis tools capable of detecting or even predicting cable and failures based on real-time data
  • Smart generation capable of “learning” the unique behavior of power generation resources to optimize energy generation.

I was speaking to a senior smart grid professional at IBM a few months back, and he mentioned something interesting: Countries such as India whose electricity grid is newer compared to those of US or Europe could actually implement smart grid faster than those countries. There might be a good amount of truth in this, because at least in the US, a large portion of the electricity grid is almost 100 old!

What is a smart grid? So, is there a dumb grid too? - Cleantech Guide

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