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What You Need to Know About Smart Grids

What You Need to Know About Smart Grids

From ASHRAE Journal Newsletter, April 27, 2021

The transformation to a smart grid has already begun requiring changes in the electric grid infrastructure that could affect building design and operation strategies. To help building professionals understand what is happening as the electric grid evolves into the smart grid, Steven Bushby, Fellow ASHRAE, and others created the Smart Grid Application Guide: Integrating Facilities with the Electric Grid.  

There is a lot to know about smart grids, and the technology is rapidly changing. To help people better understand smart grids, Bushby, chair of the guide’s ad hoc committee and leader of the Mechanical Systems and Controls Group of the Building Energy and Environment Division of the Engineering Laboratory at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, discusses what ASHRAE members need to know about the smart grid trend and its significance.

1. What is the significance of smart grids?

A “smart grid” means a grid that supports bidirectional flow of energy and communication between generation sources and loads. It can take advantage of information from sensors and collaborative actions between the utility and its energy-consuming customers.

 2. Why is it important to talk about smart grids now? 

Building owners make investments that are intended to serve the occupants for time scales of decades. Even though the transformation to a smart grid is still in progress and will take additional time to be completed, building owners can do many things now to begin to reap the benefits and prepare for additional benefits in the future. It is prudent to consider smart grid implications in design and upgrade decisions that are being made now because the building owner will live with the consequences of those decisions for many years.

3. What do ASHRAE members need to know about smart grids?

  • The United States established a policy to develop and deploy a smart electric grid with the 2007 passage of the Energy Independence and Security Act, which became effective in December 2010. We are now more than 10 years down the road toward achieving that goal. Substantial investments in transforming the grid have already been made, and they will be continuing for many years. Similar transformations are happening in countries around the world.
  • One of the drivers for a smart grid is to be able to greatly increase the percentage of electricity generated from renewable energy, much of which is intermittent in nature (wind and photovoltaics). Homes and buildings account for most of the consumption of electricity, about 75%. Achieving high levels of intermittent renewable generation requires coordination and collaboration with the loads in buildings. Energy storage can help, but today it is not economically feasible to have storage on a large enough scale to solve the problems without additional assistance.
  • With the trend toward low-energy and net zero energy buildings, the buildings become generators of electricity as well as consumers. Low-energy and net zero energy homes and buildings still need the grid. The historic grid was not designed to manage two-way flow or the changes in load patterns that result from these types of buildings. Collaboration between buildings and the grid is needed to manage these issues.
  • As part of the transformation to a smart grid, utility rate structures are changing. The changes will provide a financial incentive for homes and buildings to be operated in a grid-friendly way.
  • Applying smart grid concepts to building operation can be part of a strategy to maintain resilience during storms and other kinds of events that impact reliability.

4. What are some resources designers should be using to correctly design/operate smart grids?

The Smart Grid Application Guide is designed to enable the user to select topics most relevant to their situation. Each chapter begins with a summary of why that chapter is important. Many specific references are provided to help the reader find more detailed information about that topic. One of the best features of the guide is that it is useful both for a novice and as a reference for someone who knows something about what they want to do but needs more information about how to go about it.

5. Is there anything else you think design engineers need to know about this topic?

The Smart Grid Application Guide details concrete steps needed to prepare a building—whether new construction or renovation—for integration with the smart grid. It covers a wide variety of topics, including:

  • Navigating regulatory environments that affect deployment of the smart grid;
  • Strategies to accrue benefits;
  • Utility bill savings and potential revenue streams;
  • Behind-the-meter distributed energy resources;
  • Demand-side management;
  • Customer aggregation for demand response;
  • Considerations for single- and multiple-facility design and operations;
  • Microgrids;
  • Meeting building needs during interruptions to grid services; and
  • Constraints on deployment options.