Smart gridThe smart grid can get even smarter

Published 26 January 2011

Researchers are currently working on new solid-state transformers that could revolutionize the smart grid; these new devices use sophisticated semiconductors, processors, and communications hardware enabling them to handle a broad array of functions; potential uses include reducing car battery recharge time from eight hours to thirty minutes while reducing energy loss, enabling individual homes and businesses to sell power from one to another based on usage, and allowing solar panels and other renewable energy sources to be used without any additional equipment or upgrading existing power infrastructure; the devices will take several years to develop before they can be implemented

The Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) are working with various groups to develop sophisticated semiconductors to more efficiently manage America’s burgeoning smart grid.

As the United States incorporates information technology into its electrical grid to increase efficiency, researchers are working with powerful semiconductor based transformers that have significant potential.

They could allow electric vehicles to charge even faster while utilities could easily distribute solar energy without additional equipment, blackouts, or power surges.

Alex Huang, the director of a National Research Foundation research center, says researchers are working on what is known as a solid-state transformer. “If smart meters are the brains of the smart grid, devices such as solid-state transformers are the muscle,” Huang says.

According to Huang, these devices can change the grid from a single directional flow, from the power station to consumers, to a multi-directional system in which the smart transformers shift power between homes and businesses.

Transformers are currently simple devices that change the voltage of electricity from one to another. The new solid-state transformers, however, are capable of performing a whole host of functions, as they are built to handle high power levels and capable of very fast switching.

In practice, this means that the devices could convert AC to DC or vice versa directly accepting energy from wind turbines or solar panels without additional equipment.

The new transformers also include processors and communications hardware so that the devices can communicate with utility operators, other transformers, and consumers.

Researchers have found that this technology is so flexible and contains so many possibilities that they are still working out the best application for them.

Arindam Maitra, a senior project manager at the Electric Power Research Institute, says that these new transformers could replace existing electric car battery chargers, cutting down the time it takes to recharge a battery from eight hours to just thirty minutes while boosting efficiency and reducing energy loss.

Existing electric vehicle chargers waste about 10 to 12 percent of the power that they receive.

Other uses include enabling individual homes and businesses to produce and sell power to their communities.

As large big-box retail stores begin to install solar panels and energy saving devices, smart transformers can minimize energy use by deciding when to draw power from the grid, when to use solar panels, or when to send power to other transformers.

It will still take several years of development before these devices are ready to be installed, but Huang is optimistic about their ability to change the system.


“It could be revolutionary to how we construct the grid.”