This is the second article in a series about the Third Industrial Revolution, the new economic paradigm that is transforming our lives. This article appeared in the April/May 2015 issue of North Simcoe Life.

Minto flywheel - a mechanical battery that stores energy as kinetic motion.

The Minto flywheel – a mechanical battery that stores electricity as kinetic motion.

Our world is undergoing a metamorphosis. Quietly, changes are happening. Smart meters record our electricity use. Solar panels and wind turbines are popping up everywhere. New smart devices are arriving every day. We don’t feel the impact on our lives, yet. But the smart grid is revolutionizing our relationship with energy, and it will change everything.

How we run our homes is being transformed. Not only do we have access to information from the grid to make better choices about our electricity use, but our gadgets will too. Imagine a fridge that will automatically defer its defrost cycle to off-peak hours, for instance. The grid itself, with our permission, will be able to make adjustments to the operation of our appliances during peak hours (using demand response technology). In essence, with smart information technologies, we will effortlessly be able to do much more with less demand on the grid (and more money in our pockets).

In some jurisdictions, demand response technology is already a reality. Homeowners can join the peaksaver PLUS program. Installation of a small device allows your electric utility to turn down your central AC system and electric hot water heater slightly during peak hours.

Appliances will also interface with an energy management system (EMS). With your EMS, you will program appliances (even to respond automatically to inputs from the grid), operate them remotely with a smart phone or computer, and get energy saving suggestions based on usage patterns. For instance, by showering at set times, you can program your water heater to turn down most of the day.

On the supply side, the smart grid allows renewables to become a first-tier energy source. Renewable energy poses new problems for the grid: Production is intermittent, widely distributed and of inconsistent voltage.

Ontario’s smart grid is developing ways to store excess energy. In July 2014, a flywheel, the first of its kind in Canada, was connected to the grid in Minto. (A flywheel is a mechanical battery that stores electricity as kinetic motion.) In August 2014, a lithium battery was installed in Central Strathroy. The Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO), tasked with balancing supply and demand, is in the process of securing a total of 50 MW of energy storage services. Other options being investigated include: compressed air and vacuumed air, thermal energy, fuel production, magnetic fields, pumped storage (hydro power) and electric vehicles.

Renewable power requires flexible transmission and distribution networks. They will need to reroute power when necessary, accept power from many locations and be able to monitor and improve the quality of the power.

Ontario’s high voltage transmission networks already enable two-way flow and remote control, and use embedded monitoring sensors, controls, and automation in case of emergency. Large renewable energy companies connect directly to these networks.

Low voltage distribution networks, owned by private distribution utilities, originally just delivered electricity to consumers in a one-way flow. Now, small renewable power installations, like the solar panels on your home, connect to distribution networks (thus the term distribution generation), so the utilities are starting to smarten up. As more distribution generation comes on stream, less power will be brought in from high-voltage transmission networks and the demands on distribution utilities to manage the supply and quality of power will grow.

Most power outages are due to distribution network faults. With smart grid technology, power outages will be shorter and fewer in number. Sensors on the line and smart meters will locate problems for quick service. Power will be rerouted and restored to most customers automatically and without delay. Some problems will be picked up by sensors before any outages result and addressed proactively.

Development of the smart grid in Ontario has had some big bungles, to be sure. A small number of specialized meters for seasonal properties were replaced due to a possible fire hazard. Some customers were hit with huge “catch-up” bills after receiving no invoices or underestimated charges for up to two years. Others continued to receive bills after their homes burned down. And, the cost of installing the meters ran way over budget.

As disconcerting as these problems were, it’s important to keep things in perspective. It’s early days, but as the infrastructure is put in place and the kinks are worked out, the full potential of the smart grid will come to light. We have relied on fossil fuels for two and a half centuries, and in that time we have used up the easily accessible sources and put the Earth’s biosphere in jeopardy. Now we have a viable chance of ending the fossil fuel era. Ontario has been a leader in pursuing this transition. That’s something worth getting behind.