Smart grids are the future of the world’s energy supply, especially as production becomes more decentralized and dependent on variable sources, such as solar and wind energy. The current system basically works as designed by Thomas Alva Edison by distributing electricity from few central power plants to millions of users. As the amount of suppliers and their variability increases, so does the need for intelligent control of the demand.
For example, electric cars, which will use considerably more power than a residential household, should be charged when there is extra energy available—and then return energy to the grid when it is needed. Electric water heaters and refrigerators can be turned on and off to mitigate spikes in the supply without any impact to the owner.
Many in the energy industry see moving toward a smart grid as a successful business venture (even more so than Internet infrastructure), so it’s no wonder that so many experiments have been announced.
What sets the Japanese project apart is the depth to which the functionality is developed. This will be potentially one of the most highly engineered smart grids in the world, and it will be the only one inside an island grid. It will also help to define the understanding of what a smart grid is, which has often been used as a catch-all phrase.
An initial study is underway, which is expected to be completed sometime this year. The project itself should conclude by 2015. It has four primary areas, including:
1. The integration of electric vehicles and their charging stations into the existing grid with the goal to make the grid more stable. A number of charging stations with different technologies will be installed and centrally monitored. Several stationary batteries will also be installed to simulate the effect that a larger amount of electric vehicles will have in the near future;
2. Control of power demand at the substation level inside the Kīhei region, which will stabilize the grid, especially under the influence of photovoltaic systems and electric cars;
3. Stabilization of power at the low-voltage transformer level, using micro demand management systems;
4. A comprehensive evaluation of this project (and other smart grid experiments), especially as they relate to island grids and an analysis of the vulnerability of smart grids to hackers.