Wouldn’t it be nice if you didn’t have to pay anything for your daily energy use (electricity, that is)? The energy grid is a complex system that generates energy, transmits it over many miles, and finally distributes it to homes and offices. The grid will do its job as long as a means for generation exists, from coal, other fossil fuels or nuclear power.

With the current generation model, the cost of energy is likely to increase due to depleting resources of these conventional fuels. However, most alternative sources for energy are renewable, such as solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, etc. If the existing grid was 100% sourced from these renewable sources, the energy bills would soon stop arriving.

Several incidents in the past few months have forced TI to take a few steps back and rethink strategies related to the complexities and challenges of an integrated grid, particularly related to safety and the prevention of cyberattacks, mass blackouts and grid overload. While integrating alternative sources of energy, the industry has the opportunity to improve grid efficiency, security and resiliency. Accomplishing this brings to mind these questions:

  • What would it cost to build an infrastructure that can integrate alternative energies into the current grid?
  • What challenges will arise from the integration of conventional and renewable energy generation technologies? (Think of the challenges related to mergers and acquisitions.)
  • Will the system be robust, safe and secure? Who will guarantee this?
  • Is uninterrupted energy service possible? Is it possible to be cut off from the main grid?
  • How long will it take to reach grid parity (complete return on investment [ROI])?
  • What will be the average citizen’s role to keep the system going?

Figure 1: Conventional and integrated grid (today vs. tomorrow)

(courtesy of EPRI)

 Energy generation using solar photovoltaics (PVs) is expected to grow at least 20% year over year (according to a 2015 report in Greentech Media), aided by falling prices for installations and regulations to reduce carbon emissions. Integrating solar PV technology into the current grid is feasible due to the level of maturity and business model. Net metering, introduced in several U.S. states and beyond, allows residents to sell excess energy generated on rooftop solar installations back to the grid. Having smart solar inverters coupled with energy-storage technologies will help improve the efficiency of localized generation and ability to enforce time-of-use consumption. The above concept of net-metering and localized generation can be extended to energy generation using wind turbines.

An integrated grid relies heavily on being connected and bringing various conventional and alternate grid elements together. Connectivity makes the grid vulnerable to attacks and instabilities. Hence, energy-grid security is critical when realizing an integrated grid. It may be a relief to hear that security technologies are fairly mature and do not need to drastically change to support grid needs. Conventional technologies used in cellphones, Internet gateways, e-commerce and secure database accesses can all be extended to protect the grid. It is important, however, to predict the nature of grid instabilities and implement foolproof methodologies.

While it may seem really nice to get 100% renewable energy without having to rely on the grid, is it even practical or possible? Will systems that cost more than $10,000 to install keep residents stable, safe and provided for all the time? With the concept of net metering – even if it’s been raining for the past three days with no sunshine, even if there is no significant wind to generate any wind-blade movement, and even if someone is on life support or has critical needs that require uninterrupted power – the answer to these questions is yes.

Net metering, coupled with energy storage, makes perfect economic sense for consumers and utilities to continue their partnership for a stable and secure digital grid. Once a consumer attains grid parity, their energy will be practically free. In order to keep this model profitable, consumers must take steps to drive low-maintenance cost, monitor consumption, and drive energy storage.

Strong initiatives are in place in 2016 for increased solar generation via large solar farms and residential and commercial rooftop installations. A reduction in installation costs and federal subsidies will allow consumers to attain grid parity even sooner. Researchers and national laboratories (Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in the U.S.) are spending most of their resources to meet the needs of a secure grid. Energy departments in many countries have already funded pilot programs to accelerate deployment. In the conventional grid, many electromechanical meters have been converted to electronic and are finally “smart.” Deployments continue, with the Smart meters installation market projected to exceed $10 billion in revenue by 2020.

Untapped potential exists for related equipment on the grid to become connected, including smart circuit breakers, smart protection relays, smart fault indicators, smart inverters and smart solar combiner boxes. Original equipment manufacturers are paying attention.

At Texas Instruments, we drive innovation to make the world a better place. We look forward to developing and driving technologies that will be needed most in 2016 – including a secure, robust and clean grid.

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