smart grid future

One of the oft-flogged analogies about the Smart Grid is that building it is like assembling a plane in flight.  The challenges start with trying to overlay new technologies on top of older infrastructure, choosing winners and losers in competing standards, and melding together diverse equipment into situationally-aware and intelligent operations.

However, all the plans, all the assumptions, and almost all prognostications have one common worldview – everything runs on silicon.  Silicon is the foundation for the semiconductor materials found in computers, communications networks, appliances, and other electronics. For all its importance and ubiquity in our technology, silicon has some significant downsides – particularly in wasted energy. The resistance to motion of electrons in silicon semiconductors creates waste energy in the form of heat.  That heat can damage sensitive electronics, so more energy must be expended in cooling mechanisms to dissipate or reduce that heat.

If semiconductors are the embedded fabric of our modern electronics, then silicon is the thread.  What happens if that thread unravels?   Universities and labs worldwide focused in nanotechnological research are exploring new materials, such as graphene, and reporting exciting results.  Graphene and graphene-composite materials are much better conductors of electrons and therefore virtually eliminate the waste heat problems created by silicon.  That also reduces the demand for extra energy to cool microprocessors.

Beyond the demonstrated energy-saving benefits of replacing silicon with graphene, nanomaterials research with graphene is also improving the performance of solar cells.  Graphene’s single layer lattice structure confers significant flexibility and durability in materials.  That could translate into solar harvesting capabilities embedded into a wide variety of physical coverings ranging from wearable fabrics to fixed structures like windows or walls.  New graphene-based composite materials could also find their way into mass production of enclosures for electronics or automobiles.  Other cutting edge research of graphene applications in energy storage show promise to improve battery performance.

Credible academic researchers estimate that graphene-based electronics alone could reduce power consumption by 50%.  There’s optimism in the scientific community that the technical challenges can be overcome by the end of this decade and scalable commercialized solutions won’t be far behind.

A green revolution can usher in a new era in the history of electronics, but what are the implications for the electric sector and the Smart Grid?  First and foremost, a transition to less energy-intensive electronics would dramatically reduce projections for future power consumption. In the USA and other areas with fully developed economies, our baseline power usage could substantially drop.  Mobile devices could hold charges longer, and recharge themselves with some exposure to light.  We could still have peaks and valleys in electricity demand, but the end result would be a need for fewer sources of generation.  Developing economies like China might stop building new coal-fired power plants as future energy projections are recalibrated for electronics based on graphene.  Second, distributed generation could take on new dimensions as our built environment and equipment enclosures could be embedded with nanomaterials that fully or partially self-power the activities within those physical structures.   Graphene-based nanotechnologies could create new and potentially closed loop prosumer scenarios in which the built environment produces more energy and consumes less energy.  Third, microgrids will be important players as intelligent nodes that manage a vastly larger number of these graphene-based energy generation and storage devices in a distributed grid control architecture. The coming green revolution in electronics should factor into long term utility Smart Grid plans.  This green revolution offers compelling reasons for utilities to evolve to transactive energy models with increased reliance on renewable energy sources.

Photo Credit: Green Electronics and the Grid/shutterstock