Intelligent Energy

Experimental smart outlet could turn homes into power islands

Experimental smart outlet could turn homes into power islands

Posting in Energy

Sandia National Laboratories has developed an experimental smart outlet that can control electrical loads without connecting to a centralized computer or system.

Sandia National Laboratories has created an experimental smart outlet that independently measures, monitors and controls electrical loads without connecting to a centralized computer. The technology would make the power grid more distributed and help it evolve into a collection of microgrids.

The upshot? Consumers would have greater control of their energy use. Homes or businesses with solar, wind or an energy storage device could function individually as an island or collectively within an organized system. In other words, the smart outlet could turn your home into a power island when the rest of the grid is down.

According to Sandia Labs, similar technology could be built into energy-intensive appliances and connected to a home-monitoring system, which would ultimately give the homeowner more control of their energy use. What's different about the smart outlet is the distributed autonomous control, which allows the average low-tech homeowner to manage loads, and, in turn, help utilities manage the grid with less hands-on, and costly, human intervention, according to a release from Sandia.

Inside the smart outlet

The smart outlet has four receptacles. Each one is equipped with voltage sensing, actuation (switching), a computer for controls and an Ethernet bridge that allows it to communicate with other outlets and send data to a collection computer. The outlet can measure real power and reactive power to provide a more accurate measurement of the power potentially available to drive loads.

The outlet also measures power usage and the direction of power flow. Typically, power flows in one direction. But this outlet also has the ability to monitor and control bi-directional power, which could be used to send power generated from a solar photovoltaic system onto the the grid. This bi-directional capability also allows a home with solar panels, for example, to become an island if the main power grid were to go down.

To be clear, this technology won't be available to the average homeowner any time soon. For one, the traditional power grid needs to be smarter and able to handle more data, said Holinka. And there's still no regulatory provision that deals with putting power back on the grid. However, progress is being made on all fronts and tech like this will likely be part of the next generation power grid.

Photo: Sandia National Laboratories

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Kirsten Korosec

Contributing Editor

Kirsten Korosec has written for Technology Review, Marketing News, The Hill, BNET and Bloomberg News. She holds a degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She is based in Tucson, Arizona. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure