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Dario Gil looks at Smarter Energy

“Electrification was one of the greatest achievements of the twentieth century,” says Dario Gil, director of energy and natural resources at IBM Research. But now, more than a decade into the next century, electrification and energy in general need to get smarter.

Much of the attention on smarter energy has focused on the smart grid, what the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) calls “computerizing” the electric utility grid, and giving it an electronic nervous system.

“Although the existing infrastructure has served us well,” says Gil, “there's an opportunity to improve its reliability and cost efficiency and, most importantly, transform the relationship with the consumer. Today, most people's relationship with their electricity provider is: they send you a bill and you pay it. With a smart grid, consumers and providers will have a more collaborative relationship that will allow both to reduce costs and improve efficiency. Plus, it will better accommodate a consumer’s choice to provide power to the grid through solar, wind, or electric vehicles.”

The smart grid provides consumers with more information about their energy use and what it costs them. For example, using smarter electric meters, a household can see exactly how much more expensive it is to use a clothes drier during peak usage hours rather than before 9 a.m. or after 5 p.m.

“You become a part of the network,” says Gil, a nine-year veteran of IBM. “As a result, you sometimes shift your behavior or you may even choose to generate electricity” (through solar or wind).

The current grid, however, isn't well designed to accommodate energy generated by consumers. With more homeowners installing solar panels, that's going to have to change. Another big game changer is the increased use of electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids.

I envision that renewable energy will continue to make progress for many reasons including, reduced environmental impact and energy security. And enabling these are essential for humanity.

By some estimates, the smart grid could help reduce electricity use by more than 4 percent a year by 2030 and save $20 billion a year for utilities and their customers. Source: U.S. Department of Energy

“Depending on the kind of charging, electric vehicles will either be an issue or not an issue,” says Gil. “If everyone converted to electric vehicles, and everybody “charged at night using smart charging, the grid could actually support that load. If everyone charged during peak use, it's a completely different picture. It could be a big problem because the grid could not support the load.”

So having the smart infrastructure to manage vehicles' charging will be paramount. Utilities will have to forecast each electric vehicle's driving use and charging pattern. A car that's left home during the day, for example, could rely on a smart charging system that would pick the optimum time to recharge. Other cars, and their drivers, might not be so flexible, says Gil, so the grid would have to interact with the car to provide that flexibility.

There's also the matter of paying for electricity you use when you charge your car away from home. Gil foresees a pay reconciliation system that would allow drivers to charge their cars at an office, a mall or some other location and receive a single bill. He equates the system to ATMs; you can use an ATM anywhere, but all the funds are withdrawn from a single account.

9,200 Approximate number of generating units in the U.S power Grid.
300,000 Miles of transmission towers in the U.S power grid network.
1.5 billion – number of electricity meters worldwide.
4 percentage of meters that were smart in 2008.
18 percentage of meters that were smart in 2012.
55 percentage of meters expected to be smart in 2020.
Source: Pike Research

Smarter energy is more than just a smart electric grid, however, says Gil. It begins with bringing more efficiency to the exploration of energy sources and continues through smarter production from those sources and smarter transmission of the resulting energy.

“We also have the opportunity to decide where to drill for oil and gas in a less haphazard, safer more optimized manner,” he says.

And there are many possibilities on the consumption side as well. “Take electric vehicles: we are working on a project around lithium air batteries, driving breakthroughs in the amount of energy density they can provide,” he says. “Advances there could dramatically change the equation on cost and performance of electric vehicles. And that, in turn, could lead to a re-balancing of our oil consumption.”

Smart technology is also important for keeping the electric grid functioning. As this summer's huge blackout in India demonstrates, energy transmission can suffer when one area draws more power than the system expects. Introducing analytics to the electrical system can raise the grid's awareness, says Gil, and potentially detect when such cascading failures are building up. Given a warning an hour or two before a crisis, engineers could head off a blackout.

Analytics can even help utility companies recover from storm damage. Mark Twain famously remarked that everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it. Analytics can't change the weather, but it can provide a sophisticated prediction of weather and the damage it will cause to the grid. Given that, utilities can pre-position repair crews in the areas likely to be hardest hit. “The ability to predict the likely future is central to improving reliability,” Gil says.

In ten years, says Gil, “consumers will be much more a part of the electric network, actively engaged in the energy process, not only as consumers, but as producers.” Thanks to an interactive network, energy consumers will become “a federation of micro-producers. And that will fundamentally alter how we think of the energy system.

“I envision that renewable energy will continue to make progress for many reasons including, reduced environmental impact and energy security. And enabling these are essential for humanity.”

Everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it. -Mark Twain