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Smaller, smarter: The power grid evolves to fuel the future

NEW YORK -- America's hunger for electrical power has been growing ever since that day in 1879 when Thomas Edison created the first long-lasting incandescent light bulb.

Edison didn't stop with a single light bulb. He also brought us the first commercial power grid in 1882. The Pearl Street Station in lower Manhattan transmitted electricity from a central station to other surrounding buildings.

The demand for electricity has, of course, grown exponentially since then, and it's expected to keep rising; the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates we'll be using almost one-third more by 2040.

But while the grid has developed into a vast network, it sometimes struggles to meet demand and to withstand bad weather and technical failures.

"To some extent it's going to break, it's going to break, it's going to break because it's old and ailing or mother nature is going to come along and cause mischief," said Stephen Flynn, Director for Resilience Studies at Northeastern University. "When we put it back together we should make it smarter and better, we shouldn't just put Humpty Dumpty back together again."

A number of different approaches and innovative technologies are being developed to try to meet that challenge and deliver power for the next generation.

Microgrids

A microgrid is essentially a smaller grid that can work independently and disconnect from the larger grid.

And sometimes they aren't easy to spot. Walking around New York University's Washington Square campus, you would never notice that you are actually walking in a microgrid. NYU's underground cogeneration or cogen plant produces both electricity and steam even when the main utility company fails.

The NYU microgrid got its first big test during Superstorm Sandy in 2012, when the local utility Con Edison suffered widespread blackouts, leaving most of lower Manhattan in the dark. In the midst of the storm, NYU's campus shined like a bright light.

"When Superstorm Sandy happened and we were what we call in 'island mode' and our power plant, our cogen plant, ran independent of the Con Ed grid. And we provided power to the 26 buildings throughout the duration of superstorm Sandy," said John Bradley, NYU's associate vice president of sustainability, energy and technical services.

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New York University's underground cogeneration plant.
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"A cogen plant is an integral part of a microgrid. And a microgrid is a system of connected buildings that get their power from a central power station," said Bradley.

Bradley oversaw the plant's design. Construction started in 2008 and was completed in 2010.

The project had a hefty price tag of $125 million to build. But it saves NYU up to $5 million a year in utility costs.

At the core of the plant are two gas turbines fueled by natural gas. They produce electricity, and unlike most power plants, the exhaust doesn't go to waste.

"What we do is we capture that exhaust energy in a waist-deep boiler and we produce steam. And then we do work with that steam. In our case we make high temperature hot water for heating and we make chilled water for cooling," said Bradley.

The university's plant is approaching 80 percent efficiency, compared to a normal plant which is 50 percent efficient. Because it is close to the buildings it serves, less power is lost when electricity is transmitted through power lines, and the shorter lines are easier to maintain.

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New York University's underground cogeneration plant being built.

Bradley says it integrates perfectly with another innovative idea in grid technology - the "smart grid." "End users, especially large end users like New York University, can help manage the grid and improve reliability," he said. "So in peak times of the summer we are asked to lower our demand. It's called demand response. And by doing that the grid operator avoids blackouts or brownouts in the city."

Smart grid software

A lot of the focus on improving the power grid has been on trying to create a "smart grid," which basically means making it more efficient, responsive and reliable through modern technology.

One company on the leading edge is Smarter Grid Solutions. Their software tracks the grid in real-time, communicating what's happening when it is actually happening.

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Smarter Grid Solutions at work.
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"What we do is provide a solution to utilities that are looking for new ways to connect more distributed energy resources to the grid," said the company's co-founder and chief technology officer Bob Currie.

The software is used by power and utility companies to increase their existing grid capacity by connecting more renewable energy and working with the growing demand for electricity.

Instead of building new infrastructure, this new technology allows the power and utility companies to make the existing grid more efficient.

If parts of the grid that are reaching the limit of what the system can handle, the software can prevent an overload from occurring by coordinating with different devices, like power generators, to help with the capacity issue.

"We receive lots of data from the utility systems so when they show us what's happening in the different parts of the grid where power is flowing, our software then analysis that identifies where there are problems, and then it connects those problems to the things it can control. And it automatically controls them to remove the problems," said Currie.

The company's first project was in 2009 on the Orkney Islands in Scotland. The Orkney project saved 23,000 tons of CO2 in one year working with wind farms.

Environmental and energy experts say this type of technology makes the grid more productive and allows for more renewables to be used to their full advantage.

"Real-time tracking and real-time data is essential to making it possible for us to cut the waste out of the system and understand how we can make maximum use of clean technologies like solar wind and geothermal," said Andrew Darrell, New York regional director and chief of strategy for Environmental Defense Fund's U.S. Climate and Energy Program

Smart grid software has also been implemented in big cities like London. Smarter Grid Solutions is currently doing a nine-month study in New York researching how to make the city's grid more efficient and reliable.

"It's like we are managing the traffic on the roads, almost," Currie explained. "If you set the traffic lights up to operate to a schedule and you just forget about them, then you are missing an opportunity to coordinate those traffic lights based on the actual traffic on the road. So by monitoring and making decisions in a real-time and an ongoing basis, we can adapt to whatever is happening and fit more through the system."