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Engineers foresee big changes for electric grid

Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla would recognize today's grid, but IEEE engineers say the push for a smart grid will diversify energy sources and improve efficiency and reliability.

WALTHAM, Mass.--Technologies now being tested on the grid are a step toward strengthening the U.S. energy infrastructure and boosting the economy, according to speakers at an IEEE conference on the grid.

After relatively little change for decades, the electric grid is poised for a technical facelift that could include small nuclear power plants, new forms of grid storage, a network of electric vehicles, and power electronics that control large flows of energy efficiently, speakers said here yesterday. The IEEE, which stands for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, is a professional organization of engineers.

The pace of investing in research and development in the power industry had slowed over the years, but government policies to improve energy security and reduce pollution are speeding up innovation now, said Stanley Blazewicz, vice president and global head of technology at utility National Grid.

Energy storage could be a disruptive technology to the electric power industry because it would "firm" up the supply of wind and solar power, which are intermittent sources of energy. The U.K., for example, has an aggressive target of getting 30 gigawatts of its power from wind power. (A typical large nuclear plant produces about one gigawatt.) One option to make wind more reliable is to add storage but a significant amount is needed--about 20 percent of the generating capacity, he said.

The most economically viable grid storage technologies right now are for supplying short periods of power to stabilize the grid with flywheels or batteries. Those early applications set the stage for bulk energy storage, but utility regulations need to be updated to address energy storage technologies, Blazewicz said.

"Storage breaks a founding principle of the utility industry which is that you can't store the commodity. That principle has driven everything around the industry--the way it's designed, how you regulate it, and the way to make money," he said.

In the near term, electric vehicles have the potential to strain the local distribution grid if several people in the neighborhood charge at once. Based on demographics, National Grid has drawn a map of areas in its region that are likely to have high densities of EVs and is planning its network upgrades around that. Smart charging, where cars charge at off-peak times, is also crucial.

Solid-state lighting is another technology that could make a big impact. For consumers, solid-state lighting, such as LED bulbs, offer a jump in energy efficiency, he said, and the technology allows for factors such as temperature and wavelength to be tuned.

By contrast, Blazewicz said that adding IT and communications to the electric grid--also known as the smart grid--is more evolutionary since utilities are adopting IT to improve automation and efficiency, as many other industries have already done.

He added that when it comes to consumers and the smart grid, it's not clear that consumers will be eager to share energy consumption data and actively manage energy for better efficiency. National Grid plans to work with other companies to offer home efficiency recommendations and conservation tips, Blazewicz said.

ARPA-E's power electronics gambit
The electric power industry, which contributes about 40 percent of the U.S. carbon emissions, offers a number of areas for the U.S. to take a technological lead globally, said keynote speaker Rajeev Ram, program director for electrical power at the Department of Energy's ARPA-E agency. ARPA-E, which was authorized in 2007 and funded in last year's stimulus plan, is geared toward funding energy technology breakthroughs by focusing on advancing research to the prototype phase, he said.

The ARPA-E program that is most closely aligned with the electric grid is called Agile Delivery of Electrical Power Technology (ADEPT), which is funding research in power electronics to reduce the amount of wasted energy in power delivery.

Improvements in power electronics, which match electrical supply with the load, can make a significant difference to the overall efficiency of the grid and other electric components, such as variable speed industrial motors and power supplies. Losses in the distribution side of the electricity grid add up to about 200 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, the equivalent of 56 coal plants, said Ram.

The program is funding research in advanced materials to make equipment such as transformers more efficient and able to handle higher amounts of power in a smaller footprint, he said. The research is also geared at chip-scale power converters that could be used to optimize output of solar photovoltaic arrays and make solid-state lighting cheaper.

Advanced power electronics could result in a 25 percent to 30 percent reduction in electricity consumption in the U.S. But ARPA-E also has an explicit economic goal of improving technical innovation in the U.S. and bringing U.S. manufacturers back to the fore in the power industry, said Ram.

"What we're really trying to do is to help companies develop a product," he said. "We want to accelerate basic science to prototypes."

Small nukes?
In another talk, nuclear weapons and power expert Victor Reis, who is a senior adviser in the Department of Energy, said that small, modular nuclear power systems could be the quickest way to reignite the nuclear power industry in the U.S.

There are at least two designs of nuclear power plants, which use the same fuel as large reactors but are small enough that cost isn't as large a barrier to construction. He named the Babcock & Wilcox mPower modular reactor, which can produce 125 megawatts, and the reactor from NuScale Power, which can produce 45 megawatts.

Reis argued that Department of Energy labs and facilities, which consume a lot of electricity, should be the first customers for these systems in the U.S. This would help scale up production of these systems and thus help bring the cost down.

The primary barrier to their adoption in the U.S. is political, not the technology itself or the permitting, he said.

"I believe the DOE is very serious about doing it," he said. "It's hardly a done deal, but I think everyone in the department, including Secretary [Steven] Chu recognizes it as very important."

Tom King, executive director of National Grid, also focused on energy policy in his talk. There is available funding from utilities to improve the energy system of the U.S., he said, but the country lacks a policy and regulations to make the grid more efficient and reliable. Blackouts cost $1 billion annually, he said, while public funding of research and development for electricity delivery and reliability reaches only $170 million.

"The U.S . is one of the few countries that doesn't have a robust roadmap in the use of the energy infrastructure, the use of energy resources, and how we deploy them on a time line," King said.