Smart Grid 101

By Admin
var addthis_pub="deantsouvalas";When Roger Duncan was a philosophy major in college, he stumbled upon the first Earth Day celebration and was forever ch...

When Roger Duncan was a philosophy major in college, he stumbled upon the first Earth Day celebration and was forever changed. Until that time he hadn't thought much about becoming an environmentalist. 25 years later, he's known as one of the pioneering business leaders in alternative energy.

Duncan is General Manager for Austin Energy, the nation's ninth-largest community-owned electric utility. Austin Energy serves a population of more than 900,000, and powers Texas' capital city through a diverse mix of sources. The company's portfolio includes nuclear, coal, natural gas and renewable like wind and solar.

As someone who never stops thinking about the shifting renewable energy landscape, Duncan's committed to making Austin Energy the clean-energy example of the US. "Roger's 3 a.m. List" has become code around Austin Energy for the challenging, thought-provoking questions that awake him in the wee hours of the morning.

It's his commitment to finding solutions through innovation in the alternative energy space that earned Duncan recognition in 2005 from BusinessWeek magazine as one of the leaders of the decade in the effort to reduce gases that cause global warming. Duncan joined an international and prestigious group of honorees that included former presidential candidate and Governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Triangle of consumption and production
One of Duncan's areas of expertise is a globally popular phrase which can be heard all over. All across the world everyone from President Obama to The World Bank is talking about "the smart grid." However, some people still are unsure of its true meaning. Duncan is just the person to explain.

Taking a broad view of the of the future, Duncan visualizes a triangle of consumption and production, its three points being the utility; homes and buildings; and transportation sectors. Since the 1900s, Duncan explained, the utility simply produced the electricity, delivering it over transmission lines to commercial and residential customers who used it. But under the evolving model of distributed generation, smart grid technology allows energy to flow both ways.

Homes and buildings capture solar energy, while plug-in electric cars generate excess energy stored to their batteries. Both can supply power back to the central grid. As electricity consumers become part-time producers, public utilities will need an entirely new business model.

"When a building is starting to produce its own power through distributed generation, and it could be either solar cells or fuel cells or low power wind and all kinds of things," Duncan explained, "it's starting to move power now back onto the grid at certain times a day. I have about 650 buildings now in Austin and on a hot summer day, I'm the customer, and they're the producer."

Duncan explains that with a dual-directional flow between the automobile and the home, when you plug in your hybrid you're charging off the home. The electricity could be coming from the utility or there could be electricity coming from the home's solar cell. And then the vehicle becomes an auxiliary generator.

According to Duncan, Toyota already has prototype plug-in cars, Duncan says, so "if a thunderstorm moves through and your lights go out, you can plug in your car and turn it on and power your house off the car." In addition to all the power moving between the home, plug-in auto and the utility, he notes there is also information moving back and forth.

"And that's where the smart grid comes in because the smart grid is the interconnectivity not only between the utility and the customer, which is its main focus, but through all the different elements of energy that are being moved about and being monitored and controlled," explains Duncan. "The utility doesn't know your lights are out until you call them, but with the smart meters you don't have to call us. It pings us right away and says I don't have any electricity here. That speeds up our recovery time immensely."

Perfect Storm
Like many, Duncan acknowledges smart-grid technology is the wave of the not too distant future. The fact is smart-grid technology has received an undeniable boost from the global economic stimulus package and the need for increased energy efficiency.

President Obama and other world leaders are completely focused on the development of alternative clean energy sources to reduce global warming. Most companies have shifted their focus to green technology. With all of this being the case, there is a perfect storm in favor of smart-grid technology on the horizon.

For more on the power grid and the next super battery please read our story on Vanadium - The Element that Could Change the World

Visit Austin Energy for more on Roger Duncan and 9th largest community-owned electric utility in the US.


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