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The Age of Ubiquitous Computing: Smart Grids to Smart Cars

Guest contributor Tavleen Mehendiratta, entrepreneur & avid technology evangelist for electric vehicles, explains the rise of an electric 'internet of things' that will transform energy delivery and transport mechanisms in India. 

The current economic situation continues to plague global markets, the fuel prices are contesting to set new records every day and as our present is grappling to hold on to something more stable and secure, the concerns for future are at an all-time high. Factor this, the number of cars on road are likely to go up to anywhere between 2 to 4 billion and car-parks of China and India are all set to explode, thus industries like ourselves need policies, technologies and methods that will future-define our movement and full-fill our burgeoning energy requirements.

Ubiquitous computing, a term used by futurist and consulting professor to Stanford university, Paul Saffo is an advanced computing concept that is themed around creating an energy internet- an industry which is poised to be a bigger industry that internet itself. Machine to machine connect and everything being on cloud is also popularly referred to as ‘internet of things’ or Smart grids.

Dan Murphy, Axeda’s VP of marketing calls it “the digital umbilical cord providing connectivity from the end asset to the manufacturer or service provider.” The goal of that is to “give the manufacturer 24 x 7 knowledge as to what is going on with that product. The connected product is in an always-on relationship with respect to service delivery and data communication.”

Why does India need smart grid?

In order to understand the dynamics of electricity generation and balance the supply and demand aspects better which is crucial to meeting the energy requirements of the people, it is important to ramp up or ramp down the grid as per the fluctuations in demand. Compare this to the red signal on road, how frustrating, inefficient and time consuming it is to wait for a red signal at a junction while the signal is green for the connecting road where there is no on-coming traffic.In the same way as the signals need to become smarter, varying their duration based on intensity and volume of traffic, the grids need to get smarter accounting for the fluctuations in demand.

 What would smart grid mean to the customer?

The customers will have access to a spectrum of pricing plans and will be able to keep a check on the pricing better. As opposed towhat currently happens where the bill is sent at the end of the month where one can never trace back their patterns of electricity consumption as components of the bill amount. Similar to pre-paid billing on our mobile phone which keeps us more aware of our phone habits and we have an option to spend wisely as we are paying by the minute, in case of electricity we will be able to pay by the hour! This will all be leading to more judicious use of resources, keeping us connected 24X7 to the product. Also with two-way metering one can sell back electricity to the grid through on-site electricity generation (diesel/solar). Imagine exercising for a few hours in the morning and logging on to the e-bay of electricity- trading money for calories burnt! 

 What are some barriers to smart grid adoption?

Smart grids not only mean smarter transmission but also smarter generation and usage, the deployment of smart grids is likely to create an energy marketplace of sorts. The primary barrier to this would be shedding the momentum; there are a lot of loopholes in our energy usage and transmission systems. Where the transmission mechanism continues to bear losses and is a representation of ageing infrastructure, the usage is totally skewed supply-demand management. The governments and energy companies would need to come together to bring about the change and that may require a lot lobbying, and the policy makers would have to set up new frameworks to make pricing dynamic.  

 Secondly smart grids are incomplete without a proper human machine interface, in order to ensure energy efficiency the consumers need to be an integral part of the loop. With two-way metering and smart meters, the consumers will be constantly made aware of their consumption patterns and would be required to take corrective actions to fine tune it or pat their backs! Cisco claims that by incorporating smartness into grids, a smart consumer can lower her electricity bill by 10-15%.

The third barrier to smart grid adoption is technical, it has got nothing to do with transmission losses or smart metering but it is about power generation. As we continue to rely on coal as our primary source of power, it is important to move towards renewable sources of energy such as solar and wind. However the major challenge that one faces are the cost of technology, the maturity of systems and intermittent availability of energy and hence the requirement of large-scale storage systems, that are currently in their infancy.  

Smart grids are very sensor dependent and hence what really could accelerate their adoption are the upcoming smart cities that will be born smart and will be wired from scratch. Smart cities would be incomplete without smart grids because the essence of smart cities is resilience and is defined by having a proper management system in place for energy, water, mobility, health and security. Without an efficient management of energy, smart cities will not become resilient and hence will be unsustainable. TOI quotes “Their (smart cities along Delhi-Mumbai corridor) key features are compact, vertical developments, an efficient public transportation system, and the use of digital technology to create smart grids for better management of civic infrastructure…”

What would it mean to the EV players?

Smart grids would lead to a better acceptance of smart cars powered by batteries. Today EVs are not considered truly green because the electricity comes from coal-fired plants, quite literally as EVs demand power from grid, more coal is shoveled into the plant to meet that demand. With smart grids, a major percentage of the energy requirement will be met by renewable sources of energy. Now, the computer in the smart grid would be searching for the local grid with plugged-in EV or electrical appliance and would start the charging. 

In addition, smart grids can use EV batteries as storage medium that can give power back to the grid in case of demand. Thus a million EVs across the country could fulfill the need for storage requirements and in case of power outage we can have mobile inverters to power our homes. This is aided by the fact that vehicles today spend 95% of their time parked! 

Electric vehicles and smart grids go hand in hand, the vehicle to grid and back technologies help in load-balancing i.e. valley filling (charging EVs when demand is low) and peak-shaving (giving power back when demand is high). This is popularly known as carbitrage i.e. when electric utilities want to buy power, they will hold an auction to buy the same from EV owners. 

As the world demand for energy increases, the policy makers need to look at architecting bolder policies, technologists need to create inclusive technologies that take customer needs into account and customers’ thought processes need to evolve for accepting the new ways of doing things. 

As the demand for finite resources is all set to overwhelm our supply chains, the logistics of how the world works will see a ground-breaking shift in coming times. The question is- are we, the people ready?


Tavleen Mehendiratta is a technology evangelist at Mahindra Reva electric vehicles. She is also currently working on a platform to enable car sharing and cab pooling for people , under a program called 'What's your mobility quotient'.

Images: Flickr/Matt Buck (top), Keith Ramsey (bottom)

Author: Sustainability Outlook