Smart grid in far-flung places



By Elisa Wood


In today's interconnected energy world, it's not easy for islands and remote communities, cut off from the ready energy supply of big grids, pipelines and superhighways. Witness the international drama last winter when Nome, Alaska became ice-locked and only secured fuel because of an elaborate sea effort by Russia and the US.

Dependent on the outside world for fossil fuels, places like Nome face not only shortages, but also sky-high energy prices. Some residents of Nome spend 45% of their income on energy. Similarly, Hawaiians pay more than twice as much for electricity as Californians.

Islands often address shortages by building more power plants, particularly wind farms, but that can increase costs even more. So a group of researchers from Carnegie Mellon University's Electric Energy Systems Group (EESG) recently tested an alternative approach in the Azores Islands, a way to use existing infrastructure more intelligently before building new capacity.

"This is important because it's not all about capacity; it is not all about building generation. It is about what we call in our research, 'just-in-time and just-in-place," said Marija Ilic, a CMU professor and EESG director.

Lessons for the rest of us
What they found may offer important lessons for an urban island, like Manhattan, which is not remote, but suffers the same problem of high electricity costs and detachment from power supply. New York City's dense population leaves little room for new power plants or delivery wires, so the city needs to use its existing infrastructure to maximum advantage. Even more important, the research offers promise for the U.S. as a whole, as it increasingly integrates wind power into its grid. So the next step for Ilic and team is to see if their application works on such a large scale.

Ultimately, the project could change the way U.S. and European policymakers plan power portfolios, according to Ilic. Green energy policy now centers on specific, somewhat arbitrary targets set by government. New York, for example, wants 30% of its electricity to come from green sources by 2015. The challenge for states like New York then becomes: Can we make the goal?

But to Ilic such goals put the cart before the horse; building capacity before knowing how much the existing system can handle. "We asked the question differently. If you were to put in more renewable energy, how would you manage it and what is the pay off?"

Ilic added: "We must revisit how we operate and plan the system, and then identify what is most effective. There is a lot we can do before we go and build."


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