Solving the smart-grid puzzle

Alix Paultre, Editorial Director, PSD


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Which technologies are vital, and what lines be drawn between them?

Many of us talk about the smart grid without really thinking about what we are really talking about. Most people are referring to functionality sets instead of the systems that furnish them, and in that lies a problem for those who must define the development of the systems involved. It is easy to say that solar panels and wind turbines will be part of the picture, but usually it is only the engineer that thinks about what systems will be required to achieve those lofty goals. Even in cases where there is an understanding of the technologies required for a desired functionality, there are often multiple potential solutions. Let's look at grid stability and energy storage for managing the varying power output of solar & wind systems and for peak/off-peak power management. There are multiple solutions that range from lead-acid battery stacks to fuel cells and ultracapacitor stacks, and each has their own particular operational parameters, weaknesses, and strengths. With multiple technologies available to draw solutions from, and mixed (and occasionally conflicting) requirements from users and providers, the design industry must not only work towards a solution for their immediate application, but since that solution is being implemented in a developing infrastructure environment it behooves the engineer to not only address their application, but also be clairvoyant enough to see far enough into the future to be able to prepare their system for integration into any future technical infrastructure and regulatory environment. Engineers do not like to think about politics (at least in a professional sense), but the regulatory environment that is developing to guide and establish parameters for smart-grid infrastructures (often framed as functionality requirements or restrictions) should be a very important concern to the engineering community. Any legislation or regulation on grid-level energy management will now directly impact the development of the systems designed to operate in that infrastructure in the new paradigm of the internet of things. Going forward, eventually every powered device will have some communications responsibility to cloud-based systems, which also means that almost every powered device will have to have all the communication and security protocols of any other web-based software-driven system, from consumer, to industry, to military, and everywhere in-between. Your white goods will have firewalls, and your car will have an IP address. What that means for the development of the smart grid is that the industry should at least develop a common system of standards for power infrastructure that created an intelligent structured environment for system development, or the piecemeal efforts going on right now across the country will never properly develop into a reliable and rugged power grid to serve America into the next century.