Software Coordination Could Eliminate Costly Upgrades to Future Electric Grids

A new study conducted by Stanford University suggests that expensive infrastructure upgrades to accommodate the growing demands of electric grids in the future may not be necessary.

Instead, the study proposes the installation of software in homes and businesses to coordinate consumer demands and resources, which could enhance grid reliability and reduce peak load, especially during extreme weather conditions. According to the researchers, this coordinated approach could save utility companies and their customers billions of dollars in grid infrastructure upgrades.

Under the current system of local control, the study reveals that approximately 80% of existing transformers are projected to fail by 2050, requiring replacements along with potential upgrades to voltage regulators and electricity distribution lines. However, the study demonstrates that by implementing centralized control across the grid, the number of transformer failures could be reduced to just one in four. Such a significant reduction in future distribution grid upgrades would expedite the rate of electrification adoption.

The rising demand for electricity is expected due to the electrification of transportation and other sectors, driven by the perception that electricity is more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels. Additionally, the increasing global access to electrified heating of homes and water, air conditioning, and cooking will contribute to the surge in electricity demand. Furthermore, the study predicts a rise in distributed energy resources like rooftop solar panels, residential and commercial batteries, and smart appliances, such as electric vehicle chargers, electric space and water heaters, and air conditioners. The coordinated use of these resources, facilitated through the Internet of Things, can effectively control power usage, reducing costs and overall power system demand.

The research team focused on quantifying the trade-off between lowering consumer electricity costs and maintaining grid reliability, a complex task that had not been extensively explored before. Using models of distribution networks across different climates and sizes, the team projected scenarios for electrification and the adoption of distributed energy resources up to 2050. The results highlighted the significant benefits of coordinating thermal loads, even surpassing the advantages of battery storage and flexible scheduling of electric vehicle charging. The team plans to make their software publicly available so that others can assess the potential benefits of coordination in their own grid systems.

In addition to improved reliability, the study also discovered that coordination could reduce peak load on the distribution grid by approximately 17%, leading to lower electricity costs during extreme climate conditions. The next steps involve developing a coordination scheme suitable for numerous homes and businesses, conducting a pilot program, and, if successful, launching a broader rollout that includes incentives for consumers to install the necessary software. This critical mass adoption could yield substantial rewards.

Funding for this research was provided by the U.S. Department of Energy, as well as the department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).

The material in this press release comes from the originating research organization. Content may be edited for style and length. Want more? Sign up for our daily email.