When most people hear the term smart grid, they think of smart meters. But those little two-way digital devices that local utilities provide households are just one small, albeit important, component of the smart grid.
The smart grid encompasses the digitization and connectivity of everything having to do with the generation, delivery, management, and use of electricity.
“It’s applying network and IT infrastructure to the traditional operational side of delivering energy and provides for the collection and analysis of measurement data,” said Amy Price, a Dell senior consultant in the Storage Products Group.
Capturing this measurement data will allow utilities to improve the real-time control of the grid, analyze and respond to trends in energy usage, integrate alternate energy sources, and provide customers more buying and usage options. Among other things.
The grand vision is that smart grid technology will lead to greater efficiency, reliability, and sustainability of the utility infrastructure and conservation of natural resources. Some believe it will transform the power sector just as profoundly as the shift from analog to digital phones transformed telecommunications -- in ways we can’t even imagine today.
And not a moment too soon, as global energy demand is expected to increase by 75 percent or more within the next 20 years.
In addition to energy, smart grid projects are underway in the natural gas and water utility sectors that offer the potential for similar gains in efficiency and resource conservation.
The smart grid is a huge business opportunity for OEMs and IT companies looking to provide the enabling hardware, software, and services. From energy storage to data analytic to inverters, there’s a land grab underway to stake out a market position in every conceivable niche. Check out this diagram from Green Tech Media to see just some of the companies vying for a piece of the pie, which GTM estimates will reach nearly $10 billion this year in the US.
At the center of it all is -- you guessed it -- the challenge of how to manage and store all the data that will be flowing across the smart grid network. It's what Dell’s Price calls the “data deluge.”
And when she says deluge, she’s not kidding. Take Austin Power, the electric utility for the City of Austin, Texas, which is in Dell’s backyard.
According to Price, Austin Power processed about 20 terabytes of data a year in the dumb old days. Then in the mid-2000s, the utility installed smart meters citywide that collected and transmitted data every 15 minutes and stored it for three years. As a result, the annual data figure increased five times to 100 terabytes. Today, Austin Power is taking smart meter readings every 5 minutes and storing the data for seven years, which bumps that figure up to 400 terabytes a year. Add in real-time data and transmission data management requirements, and Austin Power is managing and storing 1.2 petabytes a year. That’s a 60X jump from the pre-smart grid era.
Now, multiply 1.2 petabytes by the 300-plus smart grid programs underway across the US, and you’re looking at close to 400 petabytes a year. Then extrapolate the data requirements to the global level and look down the road a few years, and we’re talking zettabytes. A zettabyte is one byte with 21 zeros.
What does this mean? For one thing, bigger budgets for IT departments at most major utilities. But more importantly, it means utilities like Austin Power have to elevate the role of IT, create a whole new set of capabilities, and develop expertise in areas that they never had, or needed, in the past. The CIO should be working shoulder to shoulder with the COO. More than a technologic shift, this represents a massive cultural shift in the way utilities need to operate.
But while painful and slow, cultural shifts can lead to remarkable transformations. Just think back to what life was like when telephones were bolted to the wall and had curly cords.