New semiconductor-based devices for managing power on the grid could make the “smart grid” even smarter. They would allow electric vehicles to be charged fast and let utilities incorporate large amounts of solar and wind power without blackouts or power surges. These devices are being developed by a number of groups, including those that recently received funding from the new Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E) and the National Science Foundation.
As utilities start to roll out the smart grid, they are focused on gathering information, such as up-to-the-minute measurements of electricity use from smart meters installed at homes and businesses. But as the smart grid progresses, they’ll be adding devices, such as smart solid-state transformers, that will strengthen their control over how power flows through their lines, says Alex Huang, director of a National Research Foundation research center that’s developing such devices. “If smart meters are the brains of the smart grid,” he says, “devices such as solid-state transformers are the muscle.” These devices could help change the grid from a system in which power flows just one way—from the power station to consumers—to one in which homeowners and businesses commonly produce power as well.
Today’s transformers are single-function devices. They change the voltage of electricity from one level to another, such as stepping it down from the high voltages at which power is distributed to the 120- and 240-volt levels used in homes. The new solid-state transformers are much more flexible. They use transistors and diodes and other semiconductor-based devices that, unlike the transistors used in computer chips, are engineered to handle high power levels and very fast switching. In response to signals from a utility or a home, they can change the voltage and other characteristics of the power they produce. They can put out either AC or DC power, or take in AC and DC power from wind turbines and solar panels and change the frequency and voltage to what’s needed for the grid. They have processors and communications hardware built in, allowing them to communicate with utility operators, other smart transformers, and consumers.
The devices are so flexible that researchers are still working out how to make the best use of them. There are several possibilities. Today, charging an electric vehicle at home takes many hours, even if it’s plugged into a special charger with 220/240-volt circuits rather than more common 110/120-volt outlets. Direct-current chargers can cut the time for charging a 24-kilowatt-hour pack like the one in the new Nissan Leaf from eight hours to just 30 minutes, but they’re inefficient, wasting about 10 to 12 percent of the power that comes in to them. The new transformers could replace these special chargers, and they’re more efficient, wasting only about 4 percent of the power, says Arindam Maitra, a senior project manager at the Electric Power Research Institute, which is developing smart transformers.
What’s more, because the transformers have communications and processing capability, if several neighbors plug in their cars to charge at the same time, the transformers can prevent circuits from being overloaded by slowing or postponing charging based on consumer preferences and price signals from the utility. The same devices can also be used to send DC power from solar panels to the grid, eliminating the need for some equipment currently used to convert the power from solar panels and leveling out fluctuations in their voltage that could otherwise cause the panels to trip off and stop producing electricity.