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The case for IT in the power grid

Source: The Economic Times

The coverage is a result of an authored article being placed in the name of Dhamodaran Ramakrishnan, Director, Smarter Planet Solutions, IBM India/South Asia

How do we streamline our power generation, transmission and distribution supply chain? How can we avert the massive blackouts which recently plunged half the population of India into darkness and despair? How do we empower the consumers? How can we efficiently manage the ripple effects in such crisis scenarios, which virtually tripped the entire lifeline? While the debates still rages on what caused the fault, and who is responsible for the gloom, it is not the lack of governance, indiscipline of individual states, or even the lack of sophisticated technologies which is standing between us and an illuminated future.

One of the main hurdles that we need to manage is the lack of adequate collaboration amongst the ecosystem. Collectively, we need to work towards evolving industry standards, policies, and reforms, helping the utility companies transform energy, environmental and sustainability issues into opportunities that positively impact the world. If only, we can think, and leverage the power of collective thinking, to drive synergy across the energy value chain, we can steer the nation towards progress. Fortunately, our energy production and delivery systems can be made much smarter. We can now instrument everything from appliances and the meter in the home to the turbines in the power plants that can be monitored and controlled in real time. In fact, the intelligent utility system will actually look a lot more like the Internet than like a traditional grid.

It can be linked to thousands of power sources, including climate-friendly ones such as wind and solar. All of this instrumentation then generates new data, which advanced analytics can turn into insight, so that better decisions by key stakeholders of the value chain can be made in real time. The whole system can become more efficient, reliable, adaptive and smarter. As appliances and other technologies align with a smart grid's capabilities, consumers will also be able to create 'home area networks' of smart appliances, thermostats, security systems, and electronics that will 'talk' with the grid.

For example, there is no need for the compressor or defrost unit of a refrigerator to operate during peak hours - it can wait. Today, millions of refrigerators that operate at random contribute to thousands of megawatts of peak-load. This can be controlled through simple modifications in the refrigerator. Very soon, most home appliances will become smart. Consumers could get voicemail or email messages during a peak-energy-use time that encourages them to turn off certain appliances in return for financial incentives from utilities. Or there might be a setting on an appliance, such as a dishwasher, so that it would automatically run at a time when electricity demand is relatively low.

These capabilities would allow consumers, companies and communities to save power and money. And ultimately this would result in lower levels of emissions of the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. Indeed, the smart grid is no longer a futuristic idea, it's a necessity, and it's happening. By providing accurate, timely and detailed information on the energy being used, a smart grid will allow utilities and consumers to reduce peak demand and make the most of other opportunities for the efficient use of energy.

Moreover, a smart grid will seamlessly integrate all clean and green energy technologies, from electric vehicles (which are best recharged at off-peak times, such as at night) to roof-top solar systems and wind farms. By expanding these efforts at energy conservation and the use of alternative energy sources, the smart grid will reduce the emissions of the greenhouse gases. With smart meters, consumers remain informed and empowered to save money, to save electricity - and, ultimately, to reduce carbon emissions that contribute to climate change. Smart meters provide instant information about electricity consumption, so that consumers will be able to see, in near real time, how much energy is being used in their home and how much it costs.

With this additional information, consumers will be better able to make wise energy decisions, such as running their dishwashers, washing machines and dryers during periods of lower tariff. In fact, studies have shown that, when consumers know how much electricity they are using on a daily basis, they will become 5-15% more energy-efficient. Our electrical grids can be a symbol of progress again, if we imbue the entire system with intelligence. The decisions made today about the world's electricity networks will impact our lives for decades to come. What this requires is perpetual collaboration amongst the ecosystem, and leveraging IT to switch on to a brighter smarter future.