A Smart Way to Balance Supply and Demand

The power industry is struggling to meet demand without resorting to expensive and environmentally unfriendly resources. Mitch Beedie discovers how one green technology innovator is proposing a solution to the problem.


To meet ever-growing electricity demands, utilities are faced with increasingly long, complex and expensive planning and environmental procedures to build extra plants. Many of these have to be peaking plants which are by definition underused, and often the least efficient and most environmentally damaging. However, grids can need 20% spare capacity at peak demand to maintain secure supplies.

A better approach would be to schedule customer demand to reduce peak requirements. Utilities in the US are becoming more interested in the idea, and the latest Smart Grid system from a US-based company is now being evaluated by Duke Energy and other utilities in the country.

The GridPoint SmartGrid Platform helps form an intelligent electricity grid to help balance supply and demand. It allows utilities to monitor customer energy loads to predict requirements. During peak hours, they can discharge power that is stored (largely in batteries) around the network and also reschedule non-essential loads to off peak times.

This distributed storage is similarly recharged off peak. This effectively gives a virtual peaking power plant, with the distributed energy storage relieving stress on Transmission and Distribution (T&D) resources. The platform is modular, scalable and upgradeable. It also helps utilities to save energy and costs for their customers, and could also help them invest in renewable resources.

Since its formation in November 2003, GridPoint has raised $102m in equity capital and has recently closed a $48.5m Series D financing led by Goldman Sachs Group and Susquehanna Private Equity Investments.

The company has already received an impressive list of endorsements. It was named as one of the Ten to Watch list of companies in the Collins' book The Clean Tech Revolution. It received the 2007 North American Frost & Sullivan Award for Green Excellence. It was selected by the World Economic Forum as a Technology Pioneer in 2008 and was the overall winner of AlwaysOn GoingGreen 100 Top Private Companies for 2007.

MANAGING RESOURCES FROM THE DEMAND SIDE

GridPoint firstly helps with demand-side management by monitoring users energy consumption. Any number of different customer circuits can be measured and recorded in separate time intervals, down to one second. That can give utilities actual data on consumers' consumption patterns of equipment like air conditioners, water heaters and pool pumps.

"The platform helps utilities to save energy and costs for their customers, and could also help them invest in renewable resources."

Energy consumers can manage their energy online through a password-protected customer portal. This shows how much energy is consumed by the different appliances, and the most cost-effective time to run them (for example, off peak for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles).

A personal energy profile can automatically manage energy according to consumption patterns and utility rate schedules. Company facility managers can gain an aggregate view of multiple sites. The portal provides customers with the environmental data corresponding to energy use, and utilities can credit customers on energy improvements.

The customer portal communicates with the GridPoint Operations Center, located in the utility control room, which processes and exchanges information. It can pre-emptively address maintenance needs, and downloads software and information such as new utility pricing schedules. Emails or text messages can alert customers of outages, hours of backup power available and so on.

SUPPLY-SIDE BENEFITS

A major attraction of smart grid systems is the supply-side control that demand-side monitoring can bring. With equipment like intelligent thermostats, heating and cooling systems can be adjusted remotely to reschedule non-essential loads.

Utilities know precisely how much load can be shed for each substation or feeder, and can verify the amount that was actually shed. Battery backup can protect critical and sensitive loads like computers, refrigerators, security systems and essential pumps during outages.

Utilities can easily manage capacity and energy, with VAR (Volts-Amps-Reactive) support on feeder lines. They can generate historical reports to identify trends and predict future peak demand by comparing periods year over year. Loads and supplies can be segmented and predicted in total or by substation, feeder or individual customer.

SMARTGRID CONNECTION TO EXISTING SYSTEMS

GridPoint says its platform will supplement a utility's existing SCADA/EM (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition/Energy Management) systems, and link to existing real-time control and monitoring systems.

A personal energy profile can automatically manage energy according to consumption patterns and utility rate schedules."

Commands can be sent via the utility's preferred communications method, including standard phone lines, broadband Ethernet connections, two-way paging systems, or advanced meters with two-way communications.

GridPoint has also been developing connections to its system with PowerGrid Communications, which runs Broadband over Powerlines (BPL) networks.

These add high-speed communications capabilities to existing electric power grids, and provide a broadband connection to any electrical outlet throughout a grid.

PowerGrid has also helped integrate GridPoint's platform with a Meridian Energy Systems solar electric system to provide a complete renewable energy storage and load management system.

GridPoint itself produces the storage elements that could be distributed round a network. It has a computer-controlled battery system that can be charged by renewable sources like wind and photovoltaic cells.

The background charging goes to directly reduce peak power. This is an important part of the whole system, and could be the trigger for utilities to help customers introduce renewable energy supplies, for example by leasing solar and wind energy systems to them.

GRIDPOINT'S POTENTIAL SUCCESS

The GridPoint SmartGrid Platform is primarily a supply-side solution, and its success will depend on whether utilities will adopt it. Most call seems to be coming from the US, where the outdated grid is due for a major upgrade.

Utilities are looking to reduce generating and transmission and distribution costs while improving security of supply, for example ensuring customers are reconnected quickly during outages.

"Utilities are looking to reduce generating and transmission and distribution costs while improving security of supply."

There are other Smart Grid technologies on the market, however, and GridPoint's platform will meet competition from more established systems that tread similar ground.

One example is EnerNOC's Network Operations Center, which also remotely manages and reduces electricity consumption. EnerNOC has recently demonstrated a connection to Echelon's LonWorks systems, which interconnect intelligent equipment on the consumer's site.

Many third-party LonWorks products are therefore already available to control equipment on customer premises. One of the most powerful calls from the industry has indeed been for interoperability, and EnerNOC/LonWorks will be a stiff competitor in this sector because the company already has a whole user group of interoperable manufacturers behind it.