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FLIPPING THE SWITCH ON RENEWABLES

1216mem_cover_no-boxImagine flipping on the light switch at home and wondering: Will the lights come on? Those of us lucky enough to live in parts of the world where the electric grid is robust rarely consider that question unless a strong storm or unusual circumstances cause a blackout.

But we can’t take the grid for granted. It’s the world’s largest supply chain with zero inventory, says Don Sadoway, the professor of materials science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has been called the Socrates of Batteries.

I met the dapper Sadoway a few weeks back at the MIT Technology Review EmTech conference in Cambridge, Mass., but he’s no newcomer to the energy space (you can view both his EmTech presentation and his 2012 TED talk online). His lab invented a liquid metal battery that some—including investor Bill Gates—think will revolutionize the way energy is stored and pave the way to broadening the use of renewable energy. Sadoway’s company, Ambri, promises to deliver electricity where and when it’s needed at low cost.

Storage is one of the hurdles renewables such as wind and solar have to overcome in order to become mainstream.

Just as energy storage may be the key enabler to promoting the diversity of our energy sources, technologies that increase the connection between electricity producers and end users are at the heart of the smart grid—a combination of sensors and controllers plus a process for using information and communication technologies to integrate the components across the electric system.

Those technological advances will contribute to what is expected to be the most fundamental change to the U.S. power system since its inception a century ago. Engineers will be on the forefront of developing the new products to improve the efficiency and resiliency in the evolving grid.

Some of the products that make the grid more interconnected and responsive include advanced meters, automated feeder switches, voltage regulators, and other controls technology intended to give the grid stability and resilience.

“By increasing the analytic data available to grid operators and energy users, smart technologies create an information bridge linking generation, transmission, and distribution with consumers,” concluded a report this year from the Pew Charitable Trusts, an independent, non-partisan organization. “These capabilities allow grid managers and end users to make more informed decisions about how and when to use energy, based on grid requirements and price signals. And the additional information helps utilities manage their increasingly diverse generation portfolios.”

Improving the efficiency and robustness of the grid—and enhancing the capabilities of renewable energy sources that connect to it—is important, but even more critical is safeguarding it. Grid and security experts agree that the grid is becoming increasingly and dangerously susceptible to cyber and physical threats.

A few months ago, Senior Editor Dan Ferber took on the challenge to coordinate and serve as lead editor for a package of related articles addressing these important energy topics. This month’s comprehensive special focus on the grid is the culmination of Ferber’s hard work.

Our coverage provides a glimpse of what the electric grid of tomorrow might look like, even if we haven’t yet fully flipped on the switch on renewable energy.

 


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The Editor

John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

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