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13 October 2016

National Grid and Reactive Technologies send smart grid data over power lines

The UK has just seen a very impressive first, with National Grid and Reactive Technologies partnering to send data via the power lines that bring electricity to homes and businesses. This demonstration opens the door for grid-scale demand response projects, in which end-node usage can be dynamically adjusted to achieve better load balance.

The trial saw the 50Hz electricity supply get modulated to send data, rather like how higher frequency waves are used to send data in cellular networks. Power line communication (PLC) is already well established in homes, with G.hn and HomePlug being the most notable technologies, but carrying this out over the grid is another thing entirely.

The one-way communications can send information about usage or pricing to end-devices, which could then act upon this data. An example would be for a HVAC system to have a rules engine that lowers its electrical consumption when the per-unit price goes above a certain threshold, or for a battery storage or an electric car to fill up its reserves when electricity gets cheap.

Similarly, it would allow for utilities to send demand-response commands to these end devices, that would then be carried out (hopefully) without the consumer noticing – bypassing the kinds of rules that would have to be set up by the end-user, and enabling a much more automated system.

The test saw Reactive Technologies deploy a few of its Grid Data and Measurement System (GDMS) units around the UK, with smaller devices listening out for the signal that they would modulate. In partnership with National Grid and utility SSE, the Project Samuel demonstrator was funded by UK regulator Ofgem, and ran from April 2014 to March 2016. The company expects to sign its first commercial customers in the next 18-months.

Smart grid tech takes a much longer view than most other IoT developments, (we are talking decades rather than years to market), but technology like this solves many of the communication problems that are present in the current market reality – i.e. how do you send a message to thousands of end-points in a neighborhood to turn down their HVAC by half a step so that a utility (and collectively the globe) doesn’t have to fire up a coal plant to address the gap in electricity demand.

While many people will react in horror to the idea that a utility might soon have that sort of control, they should remember that they are likely going to be recompensed via rebate or credit – or potentially trapped in a contract via the T&C, although that could be rather anti-consumer. They should also consider the collective impact of fossil fuels on the environment, but that quickly becomes quite the political argument.

What’s certain is that the utility landscape is quickly changing. Developed markets are not seeing much in the way of growth in energy demands, and the plummeting cost of wind and solar production are now being embraced, as the energy storage infrastructure (typically batteries) is getting to the point where renewables can make up a core part of a utility’s energy supply. At scale, this demand-response control can provide huge efficiency improvements.

Similarly, Home Energy Management Systems (HEMS) are on the verge of becoming economic purchases for homes, as they are now capable (in certain markets) of providing a greater reduction in utility bills than the total cost of ownership. For homes with solar panels, again a rapidly more affordable purchase, they are something of a no-brainer.

But against this backdrop, the actual task of getting to a point where the utility could tell thousands of refrigerators to back off a little until it can replenish its energy reserve when the sun comes out, requires a whole heap of technological progress – particularly among the consumer homes.

The end-devices in homes need to be able to understand and carry out these commands from the utility. A smart meter acting as a gateway to a home, and then bridging to the smart home ecosystem via a hub, seems like the most straightforward solution. Of course, a direct line to the device via the electric cables themselves is also possible, but harder to retrofit.

There are a few potential privacy benefits to this one-way communication system too, in that data privacy regulations won’t get in the way – unlike quite a few smart metering projects that can report back the usage of an individual customer in ways that make many uncomfortable. This new approach would allow demand-response into homes without impacting on consumer privacy.

RIoT has recently published a report on smart grids and their revolutionary potential. You can download it for free here.