All Signs Point to Smart Grids

Feature Article | March 4, 2011 by Frank Völkel

Houses, electric cars, utility companies, electricity grids – they’re all connected (photo: Frank Völkel)

Houses, electric cars, utility companies, electricity grids – they’re all connected (photo: Frank Völkel)

Imagine the possibilities: an apartment building that gives its residents warmth, comfort, and energy without the slightest dependence on a utility grid. Solar cells on the south-facing roof generate all the electricity needed. The sun’s rays can be used to produce energy all year round; on cloudy days, electricity stored in batteries can power the building. The real innovation, meanwhile, lies in the ability to feed surplus energy generated in the summer months into the grid as soon as the building’s batteries are fully charged.

Electric car batteries can also serve as energy storage devices. To charge them, the vehicles can be connected to the grid and the    intelligent system that runs the building. When the sun shines, for example, solar energy can be directed straight to an electric car; the resulting charge can give the vehicle a range of up to nearly 200 miles. For more, check out the article “E-World 2011: Custom-Made Energy.”

Using smartphones, tablet PCs, and touchscreens installed in their apartments, residents can also bring up information on the charge levels, consumption, and costs of their home, car, and electricity grid whenever they wish. Local utility companies, meanwhile, provide energy at prices that vary depending on the time of day and day of the week. The same applies to energy fed into the grid.

This touchscreen provides a breakdown of energy production and consumption (photo: Frank Völkel)

This touchscreen provides a breakdown of energy production and consumption (photo: Frank Völkel)

And that’s just the beginning of what’s possible when smart grids meet decentralized (read: solar and wind-based) sources of energy. For instance, the use of household appliances that suck down energy – washing machines, dryers, dishwashers – can be restricted to times when the price of electricity is particularly low.

This single example scenario already illustrates the sea changes the energy technology industry is facing, and information technology is playing a role right at the forefront of the transition. In just a few years, data communications all the way from household meters to decentralized energy sources are to be running on the Internet Protocol (IP), or along power lines through the grid itself.

The effects this will have on the greater economy will be tremendous. The network component specialist Cisco estimates that the financial potential of the up-and-coming energy technology market will reach U.S.$20 billion by 2013 – and that only factors in revenues from smart grid solutions. Siemens, meanwhile, anticipates a market volume of €100 billion by 2014.

The years ahead will show how accurate these predictions are, but one thing already seems certain: Nothing will remain as it has been. Significant changes – toward decentralized structures, bidirectional communication, and flexible management in the production, consumption and storage of electricity – will be the rule.

Smart metering: energy consumption data displayed on a laptop (photo: Frank Völkel)

Smart metering: energy consumption data displayed on a laptop (photo: Frank Völkel)

This year’s CeBIT is following suit with topical events like “IT Meets Energy.” Companies offering concepts, exhibits, and even some finished integration products are also scattered throughout the convention’s halls.

Intelligent electricity meters are becoming obligatory

Intelligent electricity meters are becoming obligatory

CeBIT model: Washing machines that work at variable electricty rates

CeBIT model: Washing machines that work at variable electricty rates

Trial stage for electric cars: SAP's Future Fleet

Trial stage for electric cars: SAP's Future Fleet

Stay tuned for the second part of this article!

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