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This November, I asked Scott Smith, Vice President of Global Technical Architecture for meter data management company eMeter Corporation how utilities would handle the influx of data coming their way after smart meter installations.
According to Smith, finding the data storage and communications hardware to provide the necessary functions is not the biggest obstacle facing utilities in a smart meter project. The telecommunications industry has already covered the difficulties with high speed data transmission and large data storage requirements far exceeding what is needed.
The challenge, says Smith, is that utilities have to move away from the “historical model” of thinking about Smart Grid implementations from a hardware perspective. Instead, utilities need to be thinking about Smart Grid projects from a marketing (i.e. consumer relations) standpoint and from a business process perspective.
For comparison, let’s look at the smart meter rollouts of Toronto Hydro in Ontario, Canada and Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E) in California.
Toronto Hydro focused on developing its business plan around customer communication, implementing a time-of-use pricing model and effective use of the Smart Grid data. The strategy won the company three awards, including the Outstanding Achievement in Marketing and Communications Award from the Association for Energy Service Professionals in May 2010 for its smart meter project.
On the other hand, PG&E simply dealt with its smart meter project from the beginning as an infrastructure change. As a result, the lack of customer outreach has caused a customer relations nightmare for the utility. This has resulted in thousands of complaints and even a lawsuit in Bakersfield that claimed the new smart meters were not reliably reporting actual electricity use.
According to Smith, the difference is not that Toronto Hydro implemented a better system technologically, (although to be fair eMeter is the MDM for the Toronto Hydro Smart Grid project). The difference is that Toronto Hydro took pains to ensure that the business process and customer relations were in place to properly handle the transition to implementing its Smart Grid technologies before the first smart meter was even attached to a house.
-By Norman Dechampes, analyst for SBI Energy and author of ‘The Smart Grid Utiltiy Data Market’
The energy storage market is benefitting from the convergence of several macro trends and is experiencing rapid growth. Nations around the world are actively investing in the expansion and upgrade of electric grids to meet current and future demand. Technologies such as distributed and renewable generation, microgrids, and smart grid technologies are further highlighting the necessity for and benefits of energy storage systems in the utility sector. Concurrently, significant investments are being made to improve the cost/performance and commercial viability of constituent technologies. The market for several energy storage technologies is expected to experience dramatic growth over the next several years.
Role of Energy Storage in Renewables Integration
Globally, the percentage of electricity generated through the use of renewables is expected to increase from 17% in 2007 to over 23% by 2035. The share of renewable power generation in the US is also expected to rise over the period. Much of the electricity produced from these renewable sources will be generated by non-utilities and even individuals. Furthermore, the power generated from renewable energy sources is highly variable and subject to intermittent operation due to the inherent vagaries of sources such as wind and solar. Thus, energy storage solutions are necessary to maximize the generation of electricity from these sources and to transmit it to where it is needed, when it is needed.
Due to these factors, it is estimated that only about 15% of US power needs can be supplied by renewable energy sources unless the electricity produced from these sources can be stored for later use. It has also been estimated that more than $340 billion will need to be invested in power storage capabilities to raise the supply of power from renewable sources by just another 5 percentage points from 15% to 20%. As adoption of wind and other intermittent and variable renewable energy generation increases in nations around the world and exceeds the 15% of total electricity generation threshold, the use of energy storage solutions will become a pre-requisite to further integration of renewable energy.
Energy Storage in Microgrids
Maintaining, expanding and upgrading the electric grids to meet the growing demand for electricity is expected to cost trillions of dollars over the next twenty years. This assumes, of course, that the manner in which electricity is produced and delivered will remain basically the same as it has for over one hundred years, i.e. large centralized generation in remote areas, connected to distant population centers through hundreds of miles of transmission and distribution infrastructure. An alternative solution gaining traction is the microgrid.
Microgrids function in a manner similar to the large electric grid but on a much smaller and localized scale. Microgrids are electric grids for small areas or even single buildings. Given their emerging nature, and the fact that microgrids are often custom designed for specific end-user requirements, several varying definitions and implementations exist. There is, however, growing agreement that microgrids must minimally incorporate distributed generation and energy storage solutions that are proximal to the point-of-use. While most microgrids are expected remain connected to the larger grid, they are also designed to be self-sufficient and thus capable of disconnecting or “islanding”.
The ability of microgrids to incorporate distributed renewable energy generation and to avoid the cost and poor reliability of long distance transmission infrastructure is a significant driver of microgrid adoption. Since most microgrids leverage storage as an essential component, growth in microgrids is also expected to drive further growth in energy storage systems, and vice versa.
 Clayton, Mark, “How Enormous Batteries Could Safeguard The Power Grid”, The Christian Science Monitor, March 22, 2009