The greatest innovations today are rarely built from completely new technologies.
Like the PC and smart phone, most disruptive ideas combine existing elements in a way that provides a dramatically better solution. The same phenomenon is true for the smart grid. Embedded reconfigurable instrumentation and control systems powered by NI LabVIEW software are merging with cloud-based networking, analytics, and other cutting-edge information technologies. The proliferation of smart networked embedded systems, widely distributed throughout the grid, will revolutionize the way electricity is produced, consumed, and distributed. Like the information technology (IT) revolution that drives it, the energy technology (ET) revolution will bring dramatic innovations that make energy cheaper, cleaner, and more abundant.
The American electrification efforts that began in the 1870s were extended segment by segment to reach almost the entire U.S. population by 1950. Like the U.S., most countries around the world incorporated technologies spanning generations when building their electrical grids. Today, these grids are some of the most complex, interconnected machines in the world. Since electrification began, many powerful transformations driven by new technologies have occurred. Now technology is coming back to revolutionize the grid itself.
Figure 1. Smart grid technology tackles technical challenges that limit the openness, reliability, and efficiency of energy production and distribution.
1. Using Smart Grid Technologies to Address Energy Production Challenges
In the early 21st century, society faces unprecedented challenges in meeting the needs of its people, resources, and environment. As stated in the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) Electricity Technology Roadmap, “Electricity is the solution, the essential foundation for a sustainable world.” The modernized electricity system will lead to productivity improvements; economic growth; and a transition to cleaner, more environmentally sustainable technologies. Modernization of the electricity infrastructure can also improve power system reliability and security while reducing the risk of dangerous power disturbances and outages.
Smart grid technologies are tackling technical challenges that limit the openness, reliability, and efficiency of energy production and distribution. One major challenge is that electrical energy is not stored in significant quantities today, which makes it difficult for grid operators to manage the peaks and valleys in supply and demand that occur on the hottest and coldest days of the year. The emergence of electric vehicles will dramatically increase the amount of storage capacity on the grid, but it will also increase the peak demands for charging the vehicles. For grid operators, this creates both a challenge and opportunity that smart grid technology will address. Energy storage will make it easier to manage large amounts of wind and solar energy on the grid, which are inherently variable in their production.
Another major challenge is grid reliability. The U.S. has 300,000 miles of interconnected power lines. Imbalances in supply and demand result in wasted power and often lead to interruptions that cost roughly $150 billion a year, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Smart grid technology will address these issues by automatically predicting and responding to shifting loads, rerouting power around obstructions, introducing distributed storage and renewable generation, and even identifying and locating faults to dispatch repair crews with the appropriate equipment.
2. Smart Instruments for the Smart Grid
Reconfigurable embedded instrumentation and control systems such as CompactRIO provide an ideal combination of technologies and features to address the most difficult smart grid challenges. Powered by LabVIEW and reconfigurable field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), these user-programmable, field-updatable smart devices can perform multiple digital signal processing and control tasks in parallel and in real time. Furthermore, modern analog-to-digital converters (ADCs) and sensors provide high-fidelity electrical measurements while synchronizing on a global scale. In addition, emerging network communication protocols such as IEC 61850 are being defined to ensure network interoperability and compatibility from the smart sensor to the cloud.
For example, reconfigurable I/O (RIO) technology is being used to improve grid efficiency in India. NexGEN Consultancy Pvt. Ltd. in India uses LabVIEW and CompactRIO for a substation automated meter reader (AMR) with advanced power measurement capabilities. It also monitors both the 11 kV incoming transmission line power and the outgoing 440 V power to characterize the efficiency of the substation transformer. In addition, the system monitors the transformer oil level and temperature and communicates via cellular networks to a central supervisory control and data acquisition system. NexGEN is deploying a version of this system built on NI Single-Board RIO hardware to 2,820 substations throughout the Indian state of Rajasthan. Installing distributed smart sensors is the only way to fully characterize the efficiency of the grid. The NexGEN AMR system promises to improve power distribution in India and help minimize the estimated 30 percent power losses in the current distribution system.
Figure 2. NexGEN uses CompactRIO for an AMR system with advanced power measurement capabilities.
Brian MacCleery is the principal product manager for clean energy technology at National Instruments. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from Virginia Tech.
Matt Spexarth is a product manager for NI Single-Board RIO at National Instruments. He holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Kansas State University.
This article first appeared in the Q4 2010 issue of Instrumentation Newsletter.