Smart grids will create two-way communication between energy companies and consumers. They’re being developed now here in the U.S. and other parts of the world to replace existing, outdated energy infrastructure. Bill Meehan is Director of Utility Solutions with Esri, a company that creates geographic information systems, or GIS, software. This type of software – which links information to geographic locations – has fundamental uses in conjunction with smart grids. Meehan spoke with EarthSky’s Jorge Salazar.
How will geographic information systems, or GIS, be used with smart grids?
GIS really is about locating virtually anything that is on the ground. So, for example, common things like poles and wires and transformers – things that connect together to form the electric grid – are located all over the place. GIS captures the locations of all of that infrastructure and shows it in the form of a digital map. That map is really the power of GIS.
GIS helps utility companies know the location of all its equipment. It helps the companies understand the relationship of the equipment to the surrounding area. So, if a transformer, for example, falls to the ground, you’re going to want to know … what’s near that transformer?
Currently, if a piece of equipment falls to the ground and people are out of power, in most of the world the power company doesn’t know until somebody calls. If your power is out, you grab your phone. A smart grid, among many other things, will locate where that blown transformer is. That’ll let the utility company send crews to the right location with the right equipment.
The smart grid is smart, but GIS lets it become even more intelligent.
Tell us more about the smart grid. What’s it like?
A smart grid is really three things. The first is just making the electric meters smarter – creating a two-way communication between your house and the utility company. You have an electric meter on the side of your house now. It measures the amount of electricity you use in a month. With smart grid, we’ll have a better understanding of your consumption in a day. With that knowledge, the utility company will be able to shift the electric load around, in a way that saves energy for everyone.
Here’s an example. On a very hot day, everybody has their air conditioners on, all at the same time. We’ll be able to map out the electric consumption over an area and then be able to tweak that consumption. Maybe that only delays the coming on of an air conditioner compressor for a couple of seconds. But you’ll still have power, and, frankly, you might not even notice the difference.
In fact, the hope would be that you wouldn’t even notice. You might not even be at home. Maybe your freezer compressor is going to kick in for ten minutes. If we can just delay that by five minutes, at just the right time, across thousands or millions of homes, maybe that’s enough to avoid a rolling blackout.
And so you could imagine that the electric system is like a traffic jam, with everybody jamming to use electricity at the same time. If you can spread that load around by automatically opening and closing switches, or reducing the load here and there a little bit, you could actually reduce the electric traffic on the grid overall. That’s really an advantage. The electric companies will be able to look at various locations – where are there problems, where is there consumption, and where is there spare capacity so that they could move that consumption from one place to another?
What else can smart grid do?
The second thing about smart grid is, if you lose power, you don’t have to call. The utility company will know. If there’s a power failure, the utility company can automatically switch out those areas that are impacted. Going back to the example I mentioned before – where a wire falls or a transformer falls or somebody hits a pole – today, people have to go out and look for the locations of these events. With a smart grid, the utility companies will see where the failure is, and they’ll be able to open and close switches automatically, so that only a very small number of people will be impacted. When you have a power failure, you usually see that the lights go out and sometimes they go back on for a couple seconds and they go back out again. That’s some automated switching. What will happen with smart grid is that automated switching will become much more intelligent.
And then, the third thing about smart grid is, it lets you make repairs and corrections before a power failure actually happens. It lets you be proactive, because you have many more eyes and ears out into the grid itself. If a wire is frayed, and it’s sparking a little bit, the utility company will know that something is wrong, rather than waiting until that wire burns through.
So it really will reduce the amount of outage time that people will experience. At the same time, you’re reducing greenhouse gases. That’s one of the things that I think is important about the whole smart grid concept, working with GIS.
What does it mean to us who pay an electric bill each month?
Knowledge is power. The smart grid will tell people as they’re consuming the electricity what the impact on their bill will be. Instead of just getting a bill at the end of the month, you’ll get an understanding of your consumption all during the day and all during the month. So you can save money.
Some people might not realize, for example, if you’re running your air conditioner in the middle of the day, that it might be more expensive or more carbon negative than if I ran it a little bit earlier. Or maybe it’s better if I didn’t run my pool filter and my electric dryer at the same time. It’ll give people the information that they need to know about their own consumption. From that perspective, they could reduce their electric bill. It’s putting the information in front of you every day – in contrast to, oh my goodness, I get this electric bill at the end of the month, when it’s too late to do anything.
How is GIS used with smart grids outside the U.S.?
In all parts of the world, GIS is enabling smart grid. Smart grid is being rolled out all around the world, and in more developing nations, the GIS is being used as an analytical tool, a tool to help utilities understand, well, what’s going to happen here? Where is the load going to grow? Where are neighborhoods going to develop? And as a result of that, it helps countries around the world in their planning processes.
Think about here in the U.S., if we put in a new off-ramp, for example, off a freeway. That new ramp is going to stimulate business. And with the GIS, it can help to identify those places that are likely to have large growths of electric consumption. Obviously, in parts of the world that are very rural, or in the hard-to-build areas, we’ll know that’s not going to happen. So the GIS is going to help provide a roadmap for the rollout of the electric system around the world.
Looking forward a few years, how else will GIS work with the smart grid?
When we think about the use of electricity going forward, you can’t help but think about the explosion of renewable energy – for example, wind farms and solar energy. GIS is going to help identify where those opportunities might lie. For example, the GIS can help you to determine the best place to put a wind farm. Or the best location for a solar panel. We’ll be able to see exactly where the best place is to apply wind and solar energy, and to deliver the solar energy into the grid.
The other thing, if we look down the road a bit, is electric vehicles. Think about the amount of energy we currently use for regular gasoline and diesel. If everybody, for example, were to stop using their gas-powered or diesel-powered car and use an electric car, can you imagine the tremendous demand that that would place on the electric grid? GIS can help in the identification of what’s going to happen when we plug in a bunch of electric vehicles into the grid. It’ll also help tell us, for example, where we should put charging stations and everything associated with the electric transportation movement.
What’s the most important thing you want people to know about GIS and the smart grid?
It’s the fact that you can’t have a smart grid without good information. Almost everybody understands a map. So whenever a problem happens, the first thing people do is say, “Where is the problem?” With GIS, they can say, “It’s right here. It’s located right here on this map.”
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.