How Smart Technology and Sensors are Transforming Electrical Grid Infrastructure

Michelle Stone Michelle Stone February 13, 2020

3 min read

electrical grid

Image courtesy of Pixabay


As the nation’s power infrastructure has grown in response to a swelling demand, utility companies have found that traditional management methods are insufficient. Homes and businesses are rapidly adopting new technologies as the shift to digital intensifies. 


Simply put, traditional delivery systems can no longer support our dynamic power requirements. Antiquated infrastructure also fails to meet the eco-friendliness goals we’re so fervently striving to meet.


The Smart Grid Advantage

Image courtesy of Pixabay


Companies such as GE and Siemens, among others, have since transitioned to smart energy grids, which contain an array of attached sensors and supplemental technologies, to meet modern requirements. Smart sensors allow real-time monitoring of power lines, equipment, and overall customer demand, and utility teams can analyze all of this data remotely. 


Sensors also monitor weather conditions and attributes like line temperature. According to TechTarget, this is crucial for determining dynamic line rating — a measure of the line’s carrying capacity under changing conditions. Power companies can tune electrical flow to ensure customers receive stable service, unlocking potential cost savings for all parties. Power providers can only dispatch as much wattage as needed, and customers can receive a real-time rate for their consumption.


This is where the smart grid and smart home converge. Companies may supply customers with smart meters for simpler consumption monitoring. Smart home devices can also feed usage data to these meters. These types of household measurement tools provide transparency for conscious consumers.


The Anatomy of Smart Grid Sensors

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Sensors have four main components: transducers, microcomputers, transceivers, and power sources. Transducers respond to power output along their respective lines, and microcomputers assess these readings and store the results. Transceivers communicate with centralized computers — located either at the facility or on the grid — and relay instructions. They also send data from the microcomputer to the utility company. Each complete sensor unit is battery powered or provider powered. 


At the national level — and even locally — these smart grids produce mountains of data. A power dispatching report from Hunan University states that traditional storage methods are insufficient for modern grids. Cloud computing is a scalable, performant alternative that readily handles the rigors of real-time data processing, supporting each grid’s remote features and allowing engineers to access data from anywhere.


Assessing Outages and Downtime

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With modern technology, smart grids are less prone to outages. Since voltage is adjustable and monitoring is continuous, it has become much easier to make rapid adjustments. It’s not often preferable for grid systems to operate at peak output — experts commonly call this regulation “load management.” Power companies can make large-scale or micro-scale refinements, and anything in between. 


Providers can perform more maintenance tasks both proactively and reactively. It’s also easier for companies to tap into external power sources, such as wind and solar, allowing for flexibility that helps prevent downtime and lessen its severity. Evidence suggests these changes are positive: the five largest power companies in the United States average only 1.1 outages per year, lasting an average of 919 minutes. 


This duration is skewed by Florida Power and Light’s average of 3,962.5 minutes. It’s unclear why their  restoration time is so elevated, but when we remove this outlier from the calculation, that average plummets to only 157.6 minutes. Smart grids are inherently easier to repair and maintain, provided widespread physical damage is avoided.


The Future Outlook of Smart Grids

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Fully modernizing our infrastructure is extremely promising, yet requires long-term financial investment. Implementation costs and technical compatibility have been notable hindrances to widespread adoption, which is why modernization is happening gradually. However, larger companies with deeper pockets may be able to progress more quickly. 


A U.S. Congressional Research Service report claims that over $3.61 billion is required annually to fully implement a national smart grid by 2030. Companies have underfunded these efforts from 2008 to 2017. 


Smart grids are generally well-received, though engineers must be mindful of potential security concerns. Wireless transmission of data poses a risk to companies, as virtual ventures always have. Safeguarding our smart infrastructure against these vulnerabilities is paramount. 


Determining the positives of smart power becomes even easier when considering complementary industries. The rise of 5G and EVs highlights the importance of smarter power delivery, and we can expect smarter grids to emerge alongside these ventures. Smart technology has revolutionized our modern infrastructure, and future upside is immense.


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