In the past month or two, it has become fashionable to highlight the shortfalls of our electrical grid, with high-profile names like Al Gore, Barack Obama and T. Boone Pickens calling for increased investment in our power-carrying highways.
Just recenty, the two big Gs Â– Google and General Electric Â– announced a plan to collaborate on new technologies and policy initiatives that would expand transmission capacity and push development of the smart grid.
"The current regulatory and economic model is failing to drive the innovation and investment we need in today's electric grid," the companies said in a joint statement.
Without dramatic improvements in grid infrastructure, they said we won't be able to tap the full potential of renewable energy and electric transportation.
Here in Ontario a similar message is being heard and promoted. The Independent Electricity System Operator has already created a smart grid forum, composed of industry executives and experts who plan to come out with a white paper this fall, recommending ways to move forward on smart-grid development.
Energy and Infrastructure Minister George Smitherman recently directed Ontario's power authority to review and "fine tune" its 20-year power system plan through attempts to add more renewables Â– wind, solar, biomass, geothermal Â– to the mix. Part of this review will look at "improvement of transmission capacity" in parts of Ontario where grid infrastructure is holding back development of renewable-energy projects.
Smitherman, speaking to a crowd of energy-industry officials in Niagara Falls, Ont., made it clear that we have to do things differently to tap the full benefits of green power. "Make no mistake. We are in the midst of an energy renaissance," he said. "We aren't just overhauling the infrastructure of our energy system, but the very philosophy of how we will power our homes, our businesses, our communities, indeed our cars, for decades to come."
The energy minister emphasized: "We want to get it right."
This is potentially good news for inventors like Jovan Bebic, an expert in FACTs, or Flexible AC Transmission Systems. Without going into too much detail, FACTs are power electronics devices connected to the transmission system as a way to better control the flow of electricity through the grid.
Some FACTs devices are used on the grid today, but they are either limited in what they can do or come at considerable cost and size. Bebic saw a problem that needed solving, so from 1999 to 2003 he earned his PhD at the University of Toronto trying to design a better, cheaper device for controlling power flows on the grid.
He ended up inventing the Hybrid Power Flow Controller, which has the capabilities of a high-end FACTs device but can be added to the transmission system as a retrofit Â– making existing, more common devices with names like ''switched shunt capacitors'' or ''static VAR compensators'' behave like FACTs devices, but at far less cost.
It's not sexy like solar or wind generation, but eye-glazing descriptions aside, this is important stuff. Bebic's device gives utilities more control over how power flows on their transmission systems, but as an affordable retrofit rather than an expensive add-on.
"You can tap into more renewables, and you can tap into more distant generation with it,'' he says. ''If you put a substantial quantity of wind on the system, you will have flows you've never seen before (so)... you want to see higher controllability of that power."
The bottom line "is that it provides muscle for the smart grid."
Problem is, like any small venture trying to do business with the big boys Â– especially ultra-conservative transmission utilities Â– it's tough to find someone to test out such devices. "Utilities are fast followers but they're not very good at doing things first," Bebic says.
This contrasts with power generators, which in an environment of mandates and incentives Â– and likely carbon pricing Â– have more aggressively pursued new generation technologies, such as solar.
But that could soon change with the realization that we've massively underinvested in our transmission infrastructure. What needs to happen now, says Bebic, is to come up with a market model for valuing "controllability" much like we place a value on generation in the electricity bidding marketplace.
For example, it's 4 p.m. and energy consumption is reaching its peak. What usually happens is the market operator Â– who buys and sells electricity so that supply and demand is balanced Â– will pay a premium to fire up a natural gas "super peaker" plant.
Bebic says a potentially cheaper option is to pay for better controllability by using power flow devices on an otherwise crowded transmission line to direct more wind and hydroelectric power from, say, Northern Ontario to Toronto.
It's not unlike how the Internet can choose an alternative path to deliver data if one path is too congested. If those who owned "control" and those who owned "generation" bid into the market equally, "you could create an entire market for these power electronics devices, and it would let us run the system more efficiently."
It might also defer the need to spend billions of dollars on new transmission lines, which as we move toward renewables and more distributed generation will need a lot more muscle, flexibility and smarts.