When the great inventor Thomas Edison built the first modern power grid in the late 19th century, few would have imagined his system of wires, circuit breakers and transformers, serving just 59 people, would barely change over the next 130 years. For decades, utilities have struggled to satisfy booming electricity demand with an increasingly outdated approach. But amid new concerns about energy efficiency and looming power shortages, a consensus is emerging that the electricity grid of tomorrow will look more like today's internet: dynamic, flexible and open.
The concept has not been lost on electricity officials in the Emirates, who are scrambling to install some of the most advanced grid equipment in the world. The rapid growth in electricity consumption has forced utilities to build new power stations as often as every two years, and government officials are looking at advanced grids to better manage power supply. The so-called "smart grid" involves players as diverse as electricity utilities and internet companies in an attempt to give society the tools to treat electricity like any other efficient market.
The need for reduced consumption and plans for more renewables with less-predictable energy output had made smart grid development a priority in the UAE, said Christian von Tschirschky, a power expert at AT Kearney who has advised regional utilities on smart grids. "This is the future, the smart grid is the future of the region," he said. "Because with growing economies and increasing fluctuation on the generation side, you need to have this intelligent medium in between."
In Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and Dubai, electricity distribution officials are in the preliminary stages of installing hardware and software that will provide the foundations for a "smarter" grid. New metres will be fully digital and connect to headquarters remotely, allowing utilities to closely monitor usage patterns without sending out workers to read each meter, and offering software tools to consumers to get a better grasp of how much energy they use.
Distribution companies in Al Ain and Abu Dhabi are already installing digital meters, and hope to have them in most homes by next year. A government source close to the distribution companies said the technology was "quite leading for utilities". "Most utilities are not prepared to invest in that because it doesn't give them a lot of return, it gives the customer a lot of return," he said. Officials at Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Authority (ADWEA) declined to comment on the smart grid installation campaign.
The Dubai Electricity and Water Authority is operating an advanced pilot project to test the operation of 1,000 smart meters across the Emirate before it settles on a choice of technology. Digital meters read remotely by the utility are the foundation of any advanced grid, because they offer managers detailed information about how much electricity supply is needed at any given time of day. Data from advanced meters can offer a breakdown usage patterns by hour, identify unoccupied homes where appliances or air-conditioning have been left running and single out customers who have failed to pay for their electricity.
The meters translate into smaller workforces, less waste and fewer delinquent customers. Greater savings can be achieved by combining flexible electricity prices with the new smart meters with companies charging customers higher prices at peak periods. Electricity prices at both ADWEA and DEWA remain fixed throughout the day, a policy that will likely change with upgrades to the grid, Mr von Tschirschky said.
"They might think about changing their tariffs. The problem of course is that electricity prices are highly subsidised," he said. Utilities can easily take the technology another step forward and use the metres to actively control energy usage when demand spikes and threatens to overwhelm the grid. In Kuwait, power companies have experimented with remotely controlling air conditioning systems, a step Mr von Tschirschky expects will eventually be common practice in GCC countries.
"It's all about controlling the balance between electricity supply and demand," he said. "They can easily control the load. That can be an emergency option in case there is overload danger." Grid operators could remotely switch off the central air conditioning chillers of large apartment blocks for up to half an hour, for example, without residents noticing any increase in temperature. The brief window could prove to be just what was needed to prevent grid overload and widespread blackouts on a hot summer afternoon.
The utility could offer customers financial incentives to open their appliances up to outside control, Mr von Tschirschky said. The ability to control consumption at a moment's notice will become increasingly important if the UAE moves to using renewable energy sources like photovoltaic solar panels, experts say, since power supply will fluctuate more than it does at existing gas-fired power stations.
The country's most advanced electricity grid will likely be at Masdar City, the carbon-neutral development at the edge of the capital that will rely entirely on renewable energy. Masdar officials declined to comment on the grid, noting that plans had not been finalised, but smart grid technology is a centrepiece of the city. Residents will receive detailed breakdowns of their energy usage, with the goal of pushing consumption down to sustainable levels.
Smart grid firms say the development of a new electricity network is as much about empowering the consumer as creating savings for utilities. "A lot has been thought about operational efficiency and the benefits to the utility, but less has been thought about the consumer," said Thomas Sly, the business development manager for smart grid software offered by Google. Google, the internet giant, is one of the most active corporate proponents of smart grid technology, seeing electricity demand and consumption data as powerful tools in the hands of smart web developers.
While much activity in the sector is taking place at the level of government planners and power utilities, Google is applying the dotcom ethos to the sector, speeding up the pace at which electricity becomes another kind of internet-friendly data. "There is a lot of innovation, a lot of people working on some very cool things right now," Mr Sly said. "But in this industry, there is a very long period from prototype to deployment."
While utilities consider multibillion-dollar overhauls of their networks, which could take decades, Google wants to achieve a more short-term feat: giving electricity users near-instantaneous access to their consumption data. Through an add-on to their home electricity meter, customers can beam usage data to their computer and the internet, where it can be accessed much like e-mail or an online bank account.
The inspiration for the service came when a Google executive was driving in a Toyota Prius hybrid petrol-electric car. The Prius dashboard features a special metre that tells the driver how efficiently they are driving the car. The executive realised that such instant feedback is a powerful tool for letting consumers make better decisions. "Could we create the same type of efficient living if we gave people access to the electricity usage in their apartment or home?" Mr Sly asked.
Once electricity use becomes another data point, it can be shared online in any number of ways. Users of a social networking site could challenge each other to see who could reduce their electricity consumption the most, or low energy users could share their power use as a badge of honour on their personal webpage. While the bulk of the work in making electricity grids smarter rests on the shoulders of utility companies, internet businesses like Google will play a big part in building public interest.
"Utility companies have never been in the business of designing user interfaces," Mr Sly said. "Think of the website of your electricity utility is it in your daily workflow? Do you go and log in? We're bringing a low-friction way of connecting this information to consumers." firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com