The Role of Smart Grid Technologies - Transitioning Toward Increased Visibility and Control

The idea of the smart grid has been around for decades, but today, new technologies and solutions are transforming the way that electricity is generated, transmitted, and distributed.

The global smart grid technology market is expected to grow from US$50 billion in 2022 to more than US$130 billion by 2028. But even as many utilities have made some level of investment in the smart grid, most are still flying blind when it comes to, analyzing, and utilizing the asset information that has been collected from both manual and automated inspections.

Used effectively, smart grid technologies are vital to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, transitioning toward renewable generation sources, and adapting to changing demand and usage patterns.

As much of the existing grid infrastructure nears the end of its useful life, investments in smart grid technology made today will shape how utilities operate in the years to come.

What Is the Smart Grid?

Despite its widespread use, it is difficult to arrive at a unified definition of the smart grid. It is not a single technology or outcome, but instead a full suite of various and sometimes disparate technologies that collect, communicate, analyze, and utilize information.

At its core, the smart grid allows utilities to make stronger, more informed, and more timely decisions by providing greater visibility and control of the entire electric grid.

The solutions themselves can take many forms, and will look different depending on the application, the needs of the utility, and where on the grid they are deployed.

For example, both utilities and customers are already familiar with smart meters that better track energy usage for billing and energy savings purposes. But other technologies may be less obvious, ranging from basic sensors to weather tracking systems to automated devices that trigger to avoid outages.

Investments in smart grid technologies are already being made in both Canada and the US, with resources and support being offered by governments. The US recently allocated up to $3 billion for smart grid technologies that improve resiliency, while Canada is already investing $100 million in solutions that reduce GHG emissions and better utilize existing assets.

Benefits of the Smart Grid

Across North America, much of the current electricity infrastructure is aging and near the end of its useful life. Modernizing the entire electrical grid is a monumental task, and one that will take place incrementally over the coming decades. In total, it is estimated that upgrading the US grid will cost between $1trillion and $2.4 trillion by 2050, while in Canada, at least $1.1 trillion will be needed during the same period

Smart grid technologies can help to better utilize existing capacity and optimize the performance of high-value assets. Further, smart grid technologies are vital to achieving Net Zero targets and other regulatory and compliance requirements, as well as enabling the transition toward low-emitting but variable generation sources such as wind and solar. Without the visibility into the grid that smart technologies provide, utilities cannot respond to changes in demand or accommodate a rise in microgrids and other distributed generation models that renewables enable.

The Challenges of Implementing Smart Grid Technologies

As mentioned above, the smart grid is actually made up of various devices, sensors, technologies, and systems, all from different manufacturers and solution providers.

As a result, integration has become a key challenge for utilities. Ensuring that devices can communicate with each other and that personnel have the information available to them when needed is made more difficult due to a lack of standards, varying communication protocols, and organizational silos.

At the same time, connected devices require different skills to deploy, manage, and maintain than traditional assets. While smart grid technologies will allow utilities to better allocate technical resources and personnel, they will also require additional protection and control engineers, network engineers, data analysts, and other positions that may be less well represented in the utility today.

Finally, installing a wide range of sensors and devices can be time-consuming and disruptive, especially if the installation requires a shutdown. In these cases, utilities must carefully schedule downtime to minimize the impact on customers.

Achieving Better Visibility and Control With Thermal and Visual Sensors

Utility-grade thermal and visual sensors allow the Operations and Maintenance team to gain greater visibility into the condition of high-value assets and critical infrastructure to ensure the reliable flow of power to customers.

When deployed at utility substations or other points along the grid, the sensors automatically detect potential faults and alert technicians to diagnose the issue and prioritize a response. With a continuous, 24/7 view, utilities can allocate maintenance resources more effectively to mitigate the risk of severe outages.

For example, one utility expected to see a 20 percent decrease in the number of breakdowns after installing thermal sensors, resulting in savings of upwards of $9 million each year. 

Additionally, a unified dashboard provides a single-pane-of-glass view of data from multiple sensors and devices, overcoming many of the integration challenges that result from having multiple vendors. With all the information available when needed, utilities can make stronger decisions and optimize the performance of grid infrastructure.

As smart grid technologies continue to emerge, utilities will gain further insights into the health and performance of their assets. With the right approach, utilities can not only achieve operational benefits in the near term but position themselves for the future of renewables and electrification over the long term.