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Smart cities need smarter grids: looking toward distributed energy resources


May 8, 2020
By Kaliyur Sridharan

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May 8, 2020 – In the last decade, the world has become increasingly connected. Barriers such as language, reach and time no longer present the challenges they once did. The dissolution of these barriers can largely be attributed to the adoption of the Internet and the use of interconnected devices like smartphones, tablets, GPS systems, sensors and virtual assistance, to name a few. As we begin a new decade, there are more opportunities to connect and stay connected than ever before—but these opportunities can offer unprecedented challenges.

The number of Internet of Things (IoT) devices has skyrocketed in the last 10 years, and it’s only going to go up. Globally, we’re projected to reach 50 billion IoT devices by 2030 and these products will be a part of every aspect of our society. Personal cell phones are just the beginning – everything from traffic controls and transportation to healthcare and manufacturing will rely on these connected devices and electricity to power them. The result of our infrastructure and industries adopting smart technology like IoT is the smart city, a trend we are rapidly moving towards in Canada and around the world.

But successful smart cities cannot be realized without the acknowledgement of the importance of data and power, and the intrinsic link between them.

Our society’s devices put constant pressure and demand on traditional data centres. While data centres used to be able to go offline or reroute traffic for maintenance and upgrades, this is no longer an option. In today’s age, our devices never stop—they are constantly running and delivering data—so our data centres can’t afford to stop, either. As the world’s population and, subsequently, the number of connected devices continues to rise, we need data centres to be massive, agile, available and flexible.

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Unfortunately, this demand can come at a price. Globally, data centers consume roughly three per cent of all generated power and account for approximately two per cent of greenhouse gas emissions—a carbon footprint equivalent to the airline industry. Given recent trends, we could require three to four times more energy to power data centres in the coming decades. We must consider how to build and optimize infrastructure to provide data centres with the reliability and bandwidth they require to keep our smart devices, smart homes and smart cities running.

The answer comes from rethinking how required power gets to these facilities in the first place; it comes to rethinking our energy grid.

As we consider improved ways of planning, using and maintaining electricity grids, Distributed Energy Resources (DERs)—such as solar panels, wind turbines, microgrids and natural gas-fueled generators—have the potential to address these challenges and help offset the dependency and pressure placed on traditional utilities.

Installing DERs can not only prepare cities for a smart future, but it can also provide consumers with greater control of their electricity usage. From offering a flexible and reliable power supply to reducing environmental impact and offsetting energy costs, DERs are spearheading the shift we’re currently experiencing.

Supporting the grid

As a society, we all depend on electricity to live, work and play. As traditional utilities encounter greater demands, DERs can offset pressure placed on the grid. By generating or storing power, DERs can respond quickly to the grid’s needs to ramp generation up or down, store over-generation and control frequency changes and voltage fluctuations. DERs such as microgrids can easily be connected to the larger grid in times of need, improving grid efficiencies and electric reliability.

Unlike traditional models, where electricity flows in one direction, DERs are located closer to where the energy they produce is required. This prevents the loss of energy as it travels from where it’s generated to where it’s needed—leading to Energy Proximity.

A greener solution

The adoption of DERs helps lessen the burden placed on the grid, reducing the amount of greenhouse gas emissions released from power generation. The ability for DERs to provide a resistant, reliable system relies on the diversity of the energy mix—solar, wind and storage, for example, and renewable energy sources have less environmental impact.

A common challenge facing renewable energy is that it’s largely dependent on factors outside of our control, including the amount of sunlight or wind received. To offset this unreliability, energy storage devices release energy as needed, whether during a period of high demand or when wind and solar aren’t available to ensure a reliable energy supply.

Reliability in the face of disaster

Uncontrollable events like severe weather can cause long and widespread outages. In emergencies, we depend on our IoT devices to keep us connected—from receiving critical updates to GPS navigation to communicating with loved ones. Microgrids offer the benefit of being operated in a grid-tied or island mode, meaning they can easily be connected or disconnected from the larger network. DERs can help manage energy flow and provide support to the main grid, so if an outage does occur, it prevents the whole region from being impacted and ensures the delivery of reliable and consistent power.

In a state of emergency, it can be nearly impossible to get fuel deliveries to traditional backup generators. DERs are imperative to keep critical infrastructure and emergency services running. As the number of natural disasters increases, cities must look towards microgrids to keep critical facilities up and running while also supporting the needs of the larger utility distribution network.

Creating a smart city means a smart grid

Demands on electricity are not going anywhere, but it’s important we have a forward-looking mindset when looking at utility infrastructure. As demand on the grid continues to grow, we must look at alternative ways to support electricity requirements today, but also for future generations. DERs are changing the way the utility landscape operates—they are environmentally friendly, cost effective, reliable and have the potential to provide new streams of revenue.

A smart city is the sum of its smart entities—and the grid is at the forefront of this imminent transition. It’s hard to predict what the future has in store, but we must look to an integrated smart grid and DERs as the path forward to intelligent, sustainable and smart cities.

About the author…

Kaliyur Sridharan is Senior Director of Growth Programs at Schneider Electric.

This article—along with other great content—appears in the April 2020 edition of Electrical Business Magazine.



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1 Comment » for Smart cities need smarter grids: looking toward distributed energy resources
  1. I believe putting solar panels on top of the roofs of these buildings might make them consume less energy from traditional power stations (coal, oil, gas) and use more solar energy.
    I heard solar glass windows is a thing but if you have a tall building in front of your building, they are not efficient anymore because you will not get a lot of sunlight.

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