A powerful solution in a tiny package.

As a national smart grid lumbers forward, researchers are still searching for more immediate solutions to upgrading our aging power grid. A research team from Switzerland’s EPFL Electronics Lab has come up with a chip that can manage power grid network issues as much as 1000x faster than current software. The tiny chip costs just a few dollars to make, but can take in real time information and make subtle changes in energy consumption that can save money and spare electricity big time.

One of the biggest issues the smart grid is trying to tackle is taking real time information about what’s happening with the grid, and coming up with solutions to best manage and distribute supplies of electricity. Tools such as smart meters are key to the kind of data collection needed, but the problem then becomes how to manage the firehose of information coming in. Taking the data collected from smart meters and energy sensors and making sense of it all, and implementing solutions fast is where the real trick is. This chip would cost just a few dollars to manufacture, and is customizable — it is reconfigurable and programmable according to the town, city, county, utility district and so on, which makes it a perfect tool for the smart grid arsenal.

As Ariel Schwartz of Fast Company writes of EPFL ELab’s chip, “The whole thing is so fast that it can model thousands of failure scenarios and figure out the best solutions before they happen. So in the event of a hot day where everyone using their air conditioners, stretching the network to the brink, the chip can quickly figure out what to do to prevent a sudden power failure.”

Another issue the smart grid faces is getting renewable energy sources reliably integrated into the power portfolios of utilities. This chip could automatically prioritize renewable energy when it is available — such as during sunny days for solar power arrays, or breezy afternoons for wind farms, and so on. Renewable energy is notoriously unpredictable as it depends on the weather itself, so this chip could help make renewable energy easier to use on a large scale.

EPFL states, “This way of managing the network is in line with the concept of the “smart grid”: that is, the use of electronic technologies to optimize the production and distribution of electricity and thereby match demand and supply, ultimately reducing economical and ecological impact without even limiting energy consumption. However, Maher Kayal prefers not to put a figure on the financial savings: “Everything depends on the education, the intelligence and the psychology of the users of the network.” These factors will probably take longest to address and resolve.”

Fast Company reports, “The first full-scale trials may be ready to go in the United Arab Emirates by next year, and commercialization could happen within the next five years.”