The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is sponsoring several efforts to develop batteries and other energy storage technology that utilities will be able to place on their grids and possibly even in customers' offices and homes. This includes a $9.6 million partnership with the California Energy Commission (CEC) for three projects that store electricity via supercapacitors, zinc-bromine batteries and flywheels, respectively. The DOE also has a $5.6-million partnership with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) for six more projects showcasing storage technologies that include flywheels, sodium-sulfur batteries and lead-acid batteries.
"I'm a big fan of storage," Hauser says. "The bad news is that it's been the holy grail for 25 years." The push toward electric vehicles could accelerate the use of batteries as part of a smart grid. "We all carry cell phones and notebook computers around that have batteries in them," he adds. "So the technology is there to place batteries throughout the grid; we just haven't gotten it big enough or networked so that they can be used for local electricity storage."
Meanwhile, the Energy Department has awarded more than $3.4 billion to support efforts to update the nation's power grid. A significant smart grid pilot program is currently ramping up in south-central Pennsylvania, where PPL Electric Utilities is planning to connect 60,000 of its 1.4 million customers across a 150-square-mile area near Harrisburg, throughout Dauphin and Cumberland counties, to a smart grid infrastructure by mid-2012. Half of the $38 million PPL Smart Grid project is being funded by a DOE grant.
GE Energy's distribution management system will act as the PPL Smart Grid's brain. New sensors and automated switches throughout the grid will be in constant communication with the distribution management system, and the system will be able to automatically control those sensors and switches in response to changing demands. Lockheed Martin will provide cyber security for the Internet-connected grid, whereas Alcatel-Lucent is providing the wireless communications infrastructure as well as implementation and management of a high-speed fiber-optic communications infrastructure. Philadelphia's Drexel University is helping with the grid's design.
GE and a group of four venture capital firms recently announced plans to make $200 million available to entrepreneurs in an attempt to spur the development of technology required to make a national smart grid a reality. "We've seen in pilot programs: when consumers get the right pricing information, they will mitigate their usage during critical peak times," says Luke Clemente, General Manager of Metering and Sensing for GE's Digital Energy business. "We've always had supply follow demand. With smart grid, we can flip that around."