What exactly is a smart grid?

Smart grids are considered a key requirement for the transition to renewables. But what exactly is a smart grid? What does it do? And what do smart grids and modern teaching methods have in common? You’ll find answers here.

Illustration: Erneuerbare Energien, Stromnetz und Verbraucher unter einer Lupe© BMWi

Smart grids use modern communication technology to combine different elements of the energy system, such as generation and demand, thus ensuring a balance between both sides. They help feed renewable energy into the grid more easily and allow for the grid’s capacity to be optimally used.

Traditionally, teachers have been passing on their knowledge to pupils, and not the other way round. And similarly, only a small number of power plants has been used to supply energy to a large number of consumers. However, traditional teaching methods have long become obsolete. There is trend towards joint learning and dialogue in the classroom. Pupils team up in working groups, organise their own learning, convey and absorb knowledge and pass it on themselves. Similarly, smart grids change the way households and companies interact. Households that put photovoltaic installations on their roofs are no longer mere consumers of electricity. They are also producing their own energy, thus becoming prosumers. With the number of prosumers rising, more coordination is needed to deliver a smooth energy supply.

Conventional grids not designed to accommodate renewables

Today’s grids are designed to handle a steady and even flow of energy. This has been sufficient to handle the constant and predictable flow of electricity generated by coal-fired and nuclear power plants. Bottlenecks occurred only very rarely. However, with electricity generation becoming ever more distributed and volatile, this could soon change and create new challenges for today’s conventional grids. How much solar and wind power is generated depends on external factors, not actual electricity demand. This means that if supply exceeds demand, the grid won’t be able to cope. Going forward, we will also see changes in demand patterns. There could be new peaks in demand, for example in early evenings, when everybody wants to charge their electric car.

So smart

This is where smart grids come in. They can help store excess electricity in electric cars and private storage units until there’s demand for it.

In order for smart grids to be able to ensure communication between all energy generation facilities and users, data needs to flow in both directions. Smart grids are therefore often called the internet of energy.
To be able to fulfil this role, smart grids require both power lines and wires.

Smart meters

Smart meters are the core element of a smart grid. They ensure that consumers, grids and utilities are linked up in a way that is particularly secure. Smart meters determine how much electricity is used, encrypt this information, and send it to the utility who calculates the price. Customers have full transparency of their electricity consumption. Grid operators obtain important information about the situation on the ground, helping them to better control the grid. Smart meters need to comply with strict data protection rules. In addition, the Federal Office for Information Security carries out extensive cybersecurity checks that need to be passed before a smart meter can be used. The security standards that need to be met can be compared to those applicable to banks.

More than a meter

Smart meters are the backbone of a smart grid. They form digital infrastructure designed to drive forward the energy transition in all areas. The energy transition is not only about green electricity, it is also about switching to renewable heat and a more sustainable transport system. Smart metering technology – which is particularly secure – can also be used to transmit data related to the charging of electric vehicles or to the smart control units of heating systems in buildings (smart home, smart building).

Smart energy showcases

Germany has selected five model regions in which the regulatory environment, the opportunities and the requirements for smart grids are being tested. In January 2017, the "Smart Energy Showcases – Digital Agenda for the Energy Transition" Funding Programme (SINTEG) was launched. The idea is to develop and test solutions for a secure, affordable and environmentally-friendly energy supply across five large model regions – an energy supply characterised by large amounts of fluctuating renewable energy from wind and solar.