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Successful smart grids: A fusion of technical and social aspects

Smart grids

By incorporating innovative engineering with community consultation, consumer driven IT products and social media, we can create a vehicle for consumers to be active participants in the technological development of the smart energy grids of the future.

Consumers are well aware of the rising costs of energy and the spending on new technologies. To help them understand the benefits of smart grids it is essential to integrate energy engineering expertise with a community engagement strategy.

As I leave the house and get on the train to head into the office, I check my smartphone for any delays on the rail network, Tweet about the great restaurant from last night, and check my house to ensure that I didn’t forget to turn off the TV or any of the lights. Simple, efficient, connected. That is where smart grids are taking us…. but who knows about this?

What consumers say about the future of energy

When asked about the future of electrical energy, consumers across Australia say almost to a voice, the cost is going up and there is big spending on new technology. However, there is very little understanding of how the industry is implementing smart grid technologies and modernising electricity distribution networks to meet growing energy demands, while allowing the safe integration of many different energy sources.

The focus is on technology over social aspects

It is safe to say that much of the success in the development of smart grids in Australia is not visible or appreciated by those outside the industry. So how do we deliver successful smart grids in an industry where the focus on technology is stronger than on the social aspects?

One example is the planning for major distributed generation on the network and the aligned engineering that ensures its efficient integration with the network. Our long history in the development of energy grids means that we have a deep understanding of the network and associated pressures. We know what makes and breaks the distribution network across the issues raised by quality of supply, security of supply and safety requirements. This allows us to employ creative thinking that fuses technology and energy engineering to create cost effective solutions for government and utility clients. But at what point does the innovation intersect with the social requirements of the community. When does smart data allow for smart decision making?

The meeting point is where smart data becomes the basis for smart decisions. This is where the ‘what’ meets the ‘what for’. It is about translating engineering into real world outcomes that add value to the end consumer and empower consumers to make smarter energy choices.

Understanding the social aspects will help shape technology decisions

Through our work on projects around the world, it is becoming clear that understanding the social aspect of smart grid development helps greatly in shaping the decisions on which technologies should be included for consideration. In this process, overlaying information such as population growth, transport needs, community infrastructure and services, with cutting edge robust network modelling tools and innovative engineering, can deliver a long term strategy aimed at integrating technology with the needs of the community.

There are two parts to making smart decisions. The first part happens when technology meets the needs of consumers, the second when there is sharing of information and understanding, and an engagement with the community. By incorporating innovative engineering with community consultation, consumer driven IT products and social media, we can create a vehicle for consumers to be active participants in the technological development of the smart energy grids of the future.

Making the benefits of smart grids visible

If we want to make the benefits of smart grids visible it is essential for us to combine our expertise in developing energy grids, modelling networks, connecting distributed generation, and even integrating electric vehicles with a community engagement strategy.
The more the community comes to understand the issues we face the greater is the opportunity for them to influence the change that is happening across the energy industry, and the more they will drive the market to provide products that enable them to make smart decisions.

Where does the solution lie?

The solution lies in bringing to bear creative thinking that fuses technology and engineering in a way that creates solutions that add value to the end consumer through their practicality. The question we should ask in everything we do is, ‘why are we doing this’? If the answer is to build bigger and better, or to build smaller and cheaper, then let’s consider what we need to do to get an answer of ‘to enable us to make smarter decisions’.

For further information about Aurecon's smart grid expertise please contact John Szmalko, Power Transmission and Distribution Leader, Aurecon, at john.szmalko@aurecongroup.com.

This article first appeared in Transmission and Distribution magazine.

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