One of the fundamental changes in Smart Grids versus the traditional electricity grid is the bi-directional flow of electricity and infromation. The customers are empowered to do things that once were not possible, like feed power back into the grid, manage their energy use remotely and store energy. OK, maybe some of these things are not possible or economically viable today, but they will be a reality in a few years’ time.
If they are going to be reality in few years’ time, then why worry about these things now? Isn’t there a set of equipment and technology that needs to be deployed before the customers’ behaviour and preferences start to matter? Those are relevant questions, in my personal opinion the customer relationship is what should be driving the equipment deployment, not the other way around and the equipment specifications should be derived from how the services are structured and what is being offered to the customers.
This seems contradictory to the traditional way of building the electricity networks, where the equipment was deployed to deliver the service to the customer location and the key issue was ensuring that the service was delivered reliably. Those requirements have not gone anywhere, but there are new requirements and businesses emerging that require different approaches. One obvious example are the services for the public charging of electric vehicles, where the service delivery is not tied to any specific location, but in an ideal situation should be available seamlessly anywhere the customer decides to travel to with the EV. In addition to that, the service may have a different value to the customer based on the type of service delivery (DC charging vs slow charging), time of the day (rush hours vs normal hours) or the day of the week to give a few examples.
Setting the service design and pricing aside, a set of questions relevant for the infrastructure investment emerges in the very early stages of the deployment project:
- Where should the poles be located?
- What type of pole is relevant for each location?
- Who are the customers that are being served?
- How many poles do I need initially?
- etc etc
In the public discussions on the subject the focus is too often on the DC poles and on their locations along the highways and the main traffic arteries. This is an important issue to address, but just as important are the poles that provide the charging services for the traffic within a city or a geographical area, where most of the driving and charging take place in any case. These poles should provide a service that allows the customers to charge their cars as a part of their normal routines, rather than be designed for a separate service. Charging an EV is not the same thing as going to a gas station, an EV can be charged while one goes to the supermarket, during the normal workday, while one is in a meeting and so on.
This is one example of the re-thinking that needs to take place as we move into the era of Smart Grids. The equipment and the technology is ready, what we now need to do is to design and deploy the services in such a manner that we can find customers for the service. At the same time we need to make sure that the investment that we make fulfills the service design criteria, but is deployed with the minimum cost. The cost is not only the equipment cost, but the engineering, civil works and other associated costs that may be accrued.