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Forget Smart Meters, Here's Some Smart Grid Technology That’s Changing How We Use Energy

By Chris Neiger – Jan 9, 2016 at 8:00AM

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Drones, cybersecurity and alternative energy course are transforming how the world manages its electrical usage.

Talk of smart grid technology often revolves around how homeowners can reduce their utility bills by implementing smart meters on their homes. But focusing on such technology limits the understanding of how true technological innovations are transforming, and protecting, smart grids across the world. 

For instance, fuel cell technology in India is changing how the country uses back up generators and, as a result, how it will keep tens of thousands of cellular towers running amid the country's pervasive blackouts.

Additionally, drones and robots are already making their mark on the agricultural and tech industries, and yet one of their biggest opportunities is doing the often dangerous work of power crews in surveying storm damage or maintaining power lines. 

And perhaps most importantly, smart grid technology is evolving as governments and utility companies realize that one of the most important aspects of smart grid tech is knowing how to protect it from those who want to do damage to it. 

These examples below are just a handful of smart grid technologies that are transforming our power grids, but they represent a cross-section of some of the most innovative uses so far. 

Cybersecurity for smart grids
At the end of 2015, the lights went out for several hour for about 700,000 Ukrainian residents. The blackout appears to have been a cyber attack on the country's electrical grid, with most of the evidence pointing to Russia as the culprit.

The cyberattack was notable not just because of the amount of people affected, but because its the first documented attack on an electrical grid that resulted in an actual outage. 

The news of the attack has reignited a conversation around how utility companies and countries will protect their grid from attacks. The U.S. has warned of such attacks for years, with President Obama mentioning back in 2009, that groups have probed the U.S. electrical grid for weaknesses already, and have attempted to take out power. Echoing those concerns, the Department of Energy recently said that cybersecurity is one of the major challenges for the U.S. power grid.

To combat this, the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) are working on smart grid tech standards, and the departments of Homeland Security, Defense, and Energy all have their own programs for addressing electrical grid security already.

For now, smart grid cybersecurity relies on a combination of communication between utility companies and the government. Software and sensors that protect Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems, which monitor and control electrical grid networks, is one of the keys to protecting the smart grid. And just as with any other technology, software updates to existing systems will always be required as new threats emerge.

Drones and robots
Electricity and technology companies are exploring new ways conduct routine maintenance and make repairs after major power outages, including using special robots that crawl along power lines and aerial drones.

Power company San Diego Gas & Electric says aerial drones can find and inspect downed power lines faster than manned crew members after a major storm. The drones can cover a larger area much faster, while keeping crews out of danger.

Ariel drones can also conduct routine line inspections that currently require several crew members and a helicopter to complete. The drones reduce both inspection times and cost and are already receiving approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to inspect 26,000 miles of transmission and distribution power lines. 

Source: CYBERHAWK Innovations.

Another robot, called the Ti, crawls along up to 80 miles of power lines to conduct routine inspection and storm damage, and uses inferred high definition cameras to inspect overgrown vegetation that could damage the lines. 

The drones can send real-time data and live video streams back to smart grid systems, allowing power companies to mange potential electrical problems like never before. And they're only growing in popularity. By 2024, companies making drones and robots for utilities will see revenues of $4 billion, up from just $132 million last year, according to Navigant Research.  

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Generators
It's no secret that India is quickly become a major player it the world's economic stage, but the country still has lots of progress to make to make with its electrical grid. Power outages are a normal part of life in the country, which leads to widespread cell phone outages. About 70% of the country's cell towers experience daily power outages for up to eight hours, according to Smart Grid News.

Right now, most the country's cell towers work on diesel-powered generators to keep them running when the power goes out, which increases the cost of keeping those towers running. About 40% of a cellular tower's running cost comes from simply supplying power to the tower, compared to just 12% in Europe, according to the World Bank. 

To increase the efficiency of the cell towers, India is starting to use hydrogen fuel cell generators in place the diesel-powered ones. The UK-based Intelligent Energy will supply the generators to more than 27,000 cellular towers across the country over the next 10 years. 

It may be a slow start to alleviating India's electrical grid woes, but as more towers offload their electrical demand to hydrogen fuel cells, the longer they'll run and the more users in India will be able to keep the lights, and their cell phones, running. 

Just a small sampling
Of course, these are just a few examples of how smart grid technologies are developing, and there are plenty others that are transforming how we use energy. As more electrical grids are brought online and connected to increasingly sophisticated software systems, new technologies will emerge that increase efficiencies and protect our systems even better than before. 

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