Getting smarter grids through semiconductors

2 mins read

This year's CEO roundtable at electronica took a look at the smart grid and how semiconductors can boost energy efficiency. Power consumption is a challenge being faced across the board. Whether it's in portable battery powered devices or at the other end of the scale in distribution and generation, engineers are looking to find innovative ways to make the most of power.

It's no surprise that the major semiconductor manufacturers see power efficiency as a technology in which they can focus. And it's the smart grid that's particularly in their sights. Four ceos from leading manufacturers joined this year's CEO Forum to discuss the topic. There were two 'old faces' – Carlo Bozotti from STMicroelectronics and Rick Clemmer from NXP – as well as two 'new boys' – Gregg Lowe from Freescale and Reinhard Ploss from Infineon. What is the smart grid? Clemmer answered first. "It's encompassing," he said. "It includes the home as well as the distribution network and, from the semiconductor point of view, includes smart meters and lighting." Lowe added: "The grid is already smart; it brought power to people and to manufacturers. But it's the use of power that has created the situation where the grid needs to change." Ploss gave a European perspective. "It used to be a one to one connection, but users are becoming suppliers. The smart grid is becoming the internet of electrical power and we need a pricing system which rewards the use of power when it's available." Bozotti, meanwhile, believes the grid is inefficient. "About 20% of the grid is only there to meet peak demand," he claimed. "There's a lot of opportunity to improve efficiency and semiconductors can really bring benefits." Lowe came back with statistics. "More than 20% of capacity is used less than 10% of the time." Put another way, for 90% of the time, we only need 20% of the capacity. Ploss believes the grid is in bad condition and it's a question of how best to use it. "We need to switch from ac to dc transmission," he contended, "and get rid of reactive power. While semiconductors might help with transport issues, we can't solve the problem overnight; we have to add intelligence and balance supply and demand." Lowe believes intelligence can be added through sensors. "We need to understand what's happening; smart thermostats, for example." Bozotti agreed: "There's a tremendous opportunity for sensors." Clemmer took an M2M tack. "We see the opportunity for everything to have an IP address and to be controlled. It's a significant opportunity and the semiconductor industry can drive that. With IP addresses, apps will allow you to control everything; it's a holistic approach that provides for energy reduction and a better quality of life." Ploss sounded a more sombre note. "In 2050, there will be 9billion people and 70% will live in cities. Managing that demand for power will change the way we live. The ability to implement the smart grid is there, but we need to get things started." As the session wrapped up, Lowe produced another interesting statistic. "If five people in a neighbourhood in the US buy an electric vehicle, charging those vehicles would affect the power supply in that area; it doesn't take much. The things we do as semiconductor companies can help to solve those problems." Bozotti had the final word. "Demand for energy will be the big challenge and we need to address this using semiconductors. The economic cost to the US of power outages is $150bn a year and our challenge is to increase energy efficiency." Participants at this year's Roundtable were, from the left, Gregg Lowe, Carlo Bozotti, Rick Clemmer and Reinhard Ploss, with moderator Killian Reichert.