Are Your Transformers Ready for the ‘Smart Grid?’

The century-old power grid is the US has often been called “the largest interconnected machine on Earth.” Little wonder, because it consists of more than 9,200 electricity generating units, with more than 1,000,000 megawatts of generating capacity connected to more than 300,000 miles of transmission lines.

However this mammoth power infrastructure is nearly a century old and is understandably running out of steam. The lights may still be on but relying on an often-overtaxed grid is becoming increasingly risky.

Since 1982, growth in peak demand for electricity- driven by population growth, bigger houses, bigger TVs, more air conditioners and more computers – has exceeded transmission growth by almost 25% every year. Yet spending on research and development – the first step toward innovation and renewal – is among the lowest when compared to all other industries.

Even as the demand for energy has skyrocketed, there has been chronic underinvestment in getting energy where it needs to go through transmission and distribution, further limiting grid efficiency and reliability. While hundreds of thousands of high-voltage transmission lines course throughout the United States, only 668 additional miles of interstate transmission have been built since 2000.

As a result, system constraints worsen and power quality issues are estimated to cost American businesses an average of more than $100 billion each year.

The grids centralized structure also leaves the US open to blackouts. In fact, the inter-dependencies of various grid components can have a cascading series of failures that could bring banking,communications, traffic, and security systems among other things to a complete standstill.

National challenges like the aging power grid, increasing energy demands, spiraling cost of generating electricity and its cost on the environment are all pointing in one direction, and one direction only: a grid that is more efficient in energy production and distribution.

For years technologists have been toying with the idea of a “Smart Grid”, an electricity distribution system that uses digital technology to eliminate waste and improve reliability.

Advocates of the smart grid also say that it would open up new markets for large and small scale alternative energy producers by decentralizing generation. It would allow consumers to have a much more complex relationship with their energy supplier.

More on the Smart Grid

To put it in the simplest way possible, “the Smart Grid will deliver electricity from suppliers to consumers using digital technology to save energy, reduce cost, and increase reliability and transparency.”

A true smart grid will not be possible unless each new major device and system that is part of the grid is able to communicate with every other system on the grid. This critical interoperability depends on a coordinated framework of protocols and standards that is in a very early stage of planning.

Up ahead in the smart-grid future, an intelligent system will work with consumers to save energy, produce electricity from a range of renewable sources, anticipate its own failures, see to its own repairs, store energy out on the grid and provide a fueling system for the new generation of electric vehicles

How Much of the Smart Grid is Already Here?

Substation automation, SCADA systems, reactive power compensation, feeder automation all these smart devices have been implemented by utilities across the last few years. However, this evolving process is constrained by available resources, technology maturity, and several business issues. Utilities need experienced and reliable technology partners to help make the transition from using isolated instances of smart technologies to a nationwide implementation.

Transformers and the Smart Grid

The smart grid applies technologies, tools and techniques that will:

* Ensure its reliability to degrees never before possible
* Maintain its affordability
* Reinforce its global competitiveness
* Accommodate both renewable and traditional energy sources
*Reduce the carbon footprint
*Introduce advancements and efficiencies yet to be envisioned

Adoption of the Smart Grid will enhance every facet of the electric delivery system, including generation, transmission, distribution and consumption.

A smart grid is therefore foundational for a sustainable energy future; and if there is a growing consensus within the United States that clean energy is a platform for rebuilding the American economy, then it follows that the realization of the smart grid is also critical to economic growth.

For the smart grid to work efficiently there will be a need for ‘smart transformers’ – the hub for collection and distribution of energy. As part of the distribution network, there are millions of transformers in the country; unfortunately a scant few of them have any intelligence or communication capabilities – or to generalize the concept of advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) – are parts of an advanced sensor infrastructure (ASI) network.

Many transformer manufacturers are recognizing this impending demand for on-line transformer monitoring products and diagnostic services, and investing in them. These technologies will be critical for improving grid reliability and helping utilities avoid transformer failures and resultant blackouts. They will also reduce maintenance costs and defer capital expenditures by extending a transformer’s useful life.