With global prosperity on the rise, the demand for energy is increasing and is approximately expected to double by 2030. In parallel, there is a concern of energy supply issues on the long run. This has resulted in an increasing activity and proliferation of employing sustainable/alternate energy sources and improved energy transmission methods over the last decade from all fronts – technology, economics, regulations and policies. Furthermore, this would address climate issues slated to be an outcome due to reduced carbon footprints from these alternate energy technologies. This article discusses trends in two areas: advanced energy transmission methods known as the smart grid; and alternate energy sources with a primary focus on solar.

What is Smart Grid?

The transmission of electricity known as the electric grid has been around for more than hundred years [1]. This grid, which has gone through little changes since its arrival, has been primarily centered on reliability which is ensuring that customer demands are met, thereby making it supply-side centric. Recently, there has been a flurry of activities on active monitoring, dynamic pricing of electricity and providing electricity in both directions with the intent of enabling consumers to use power in off-peak periods. This can be made possible through distributed generation (using energy, primarily alternate/renewable sources on a small scale and located close to where electric power is used) and through demand-side electricity management using advanced metering and smart appliances. The evolution of this grid to achieve these requirements is commonly known as the smart grid. Figure 1 shows a block diagram of the smart grid concept.

smart grid block diagramAlthough there are several definitions of the smart grid [2, 3], the underlying question is, “What is so smart about this grid?” Merriam-Webster’s dictionary identifies one of several meanings of smart as mentally alert. Taking this meaning in a literal sense, the grid is expected to behave in a similar manner. To be realized, the smart grid needs to become more efficient and versatile in addition to its improved reliability. This is due to advancements in wireless communications, network protocols, and technologies in the energy and power electronics space.

Current Concerns With the Smart Grid

The smart grid is complicated and by no means is an inexpensive project, since it requires a major infrastructural change. Innovation Observatory recently reported the cost to upgrade the smart grid would be $60B [4]. Besides cost, there are other areas to be addressed that include consumer acceptance, possible interim electricity rate increases, investor concerns, economic impact, government policies and regulations. Another major force essential to building a smart grid is developing standards, which is beginning to solidify, but at a much slower pace than expected. Central to addressing these concerns are the enabling technologies listed in Table 1. These technologies, which are the building blocks, are grouped into applications [5] that are shaping up to become an industry of their own. The global community views these applications as significant to shaping up the smart grid infrastructure. Improvements in each of these applications, big or small and independent of other applications, are vital in the journey of building the smart grid.

Smart Grid Trends

Smart metering deployed by utility companies over the last decade has been migrating from commercial to residential customers. However, metering alone could be a stumbling block as numerous customers complain about [6] increased electricity prices due to monthly monitoring costs of metering by utility companies. While utility companies continue to deploy smart metering and automation in the infrastructure, the trend has shifted gear to the demand side, such as consumer response and energy management through smart appliances. The other trend, a significant one common to both consumer and utilities is the deployment of distributed generation (DG) using alternate energy sources – primarily solar. The benefits are two-fold. For utilities, it can support peak load management. For consumers it alleviates the concern of alternate energy storage, smart grid tablesince they can sell the energy back to the grid. Further enhancements offering end-to-end solutions using data analytics are being developed ranging from large corporations such as IBM, Siemens to small startups. Other concepts emerging in this space are micro-grids and virtual power plants [7] that have further accelerated the growth of DG. especially using alternate energy as seen by a recent Bloomberg Press Release [8].

Alternate Energy

Alternate energy sources, the heart of distributed generation, have been around for several decades. However, over the last decade, we have witnessed an unprecedented growth like the ones seen in the Internet industry. A recent report by Clean Edge [9] highlights that the overall alternate energy market has grown by 30 percent with solar witnessing the highest compounded annual growth rate of 39.8 percent over the last decade. Also, the report identifies five key trends that will shape the alternate energy sector over the next 10 years. Two of them are solar related. There’s the hybrid concept where solar is expected to play a symbiotic role with natural gas. The other trend is the increasing use of solar in green buildings with the goal of cutting down the amount of grid electricity usage.

In general, there are possible dampers to the growth of the alternate energy market. Alternate energy projects are dependent on global economy, government funding through feed-in tariffs (FITs), tax credits and regulations. Given the recent global financial crisis credits have tightened, resulting in less funding. Also, government deficits have resulted in spending cuts, reducing incentives for the alternate energy markets. Furthermore, the alternate energy market still faces some tailwind from oil prices, a dominant energy factor that will remain for a while.

Solar Energy Market and Trends

The solar market is attractive for three reasons: a marked technological improvement in cell efficiency; a gradual and predictable cost reduction heading close to grid parity in some parts of the world over the next few years; and solar has been able to weather the financial crisis over the last couple of years with solar installations growing more than 100 percent year over year.

Looking at 2011, the solar market appears to be ready to make some fortunes even though some of the leading countries in solar like Germany and Italy, are slowing down the FIT. At the political front, Germany announced their plans to close down their nuclear reactors over a period of time. This has been viewed favorably by many across the globe towards the adoption of alternate energy in the future, primarily solar.

From a technology front, several records have been set and broken this year in cell efficiencies, [10, 11] for one. Another giant leapfrog in cell design was a research announcement of a full spectrum solar cell that could reach up to 42 percent using colloidal quantum dot technology [12]. Yet another efficiency enhancement technique beginning to get incorporated into solar cell manufacturing is surface texturing.

Finally, cost per energy, the biggest driver for grid parity, has driven the ability to manufacture low-cost solar panels. This technology is currently being spearheaded by China, which is soon expected to surpass Germany in 2013 [13] as the largest solar market in the world. China is also rapidly gaining leadership in the overall smart grid industry.


Efficiency improvement of alternate energy sources at a system level, which in essence is a nugget of the smart grid system, can only be realized through efficiency improvements in power electronics. This can be realized through adoption of new wide band-gap semiconductors such as GaN and SiC in the chip industry, paving the way for a different level of IC and discrete semiconductor designs.


1. Renewable and efficient electric power systems, Gilbert M. Masters, ISBN 0-471-28060-7 (2004)
2. website for smart grid
3. What is the smart grid? by Joe Miller, SmartGrid News. Com, April 17, 2009
4. US smart grid work to cost $60 B, Smart Grid App, April 9th, 2011
5. Smart Grid Apps: Six trends that will shape grid evolution, Thursday, April 21, 2011
6. Oncor Reacts to Smart Meter Anger, Katherine Tweed, March 16, 2010
7. The Smart Grid and Distributed Generation: Better Together, Gail Reitenbach, PhD, Electric Power, April 1, 2011
8. Clean energy investment storms to new record in 2010, Sarah Feinberg, 11 January 2011
9. Clean Energy Trends 2010, Clean Edge
10. Solar Cell Breaks Efficiency Record, IEEE Spectrum, Neil Savage, June 2011
11. Record Efficiency of 18.7 Percent for Flexible Solar Cells On Plastics, Swiss Researchers Report, Science Daily, May 20, 2011
12. Full-spectrum solar cells may reach 42 percent efficiency, University of Toronto, Kurzweil Accelerating intelligence, June 25, 2011
13. Clean Energy Trends 2011 - Clean Edge: Solar is an Economic Powerhouse, Andrew Gilligan, March 17, 2011

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About the Author

Nagarajan Sridhar, Technologist, Solar Lab, Texas Instruments: