Smart grids – history, present and future

The first electric grids were constructed in the 1880s as local networks around individual power stations. At an early stage, there was great uncertainty about which development path would dominate, which is clearly illustrated by the competition between direct and alternating current.

Over time, the electric grids grew into a complex collaboration between scientific and technical knowledge, access to new materials, new forms of organisation, urban development, power struggles, social relations, and political and cultural visions. During the 20th century, access to electricity and the structure of electric grids have characterised society’s development from micro to macro level. In retrospect, the development may seem obvious, but in a non-deterministic world characterised by increased complexity and a variety of sociotechnical mechanisms and dimensions, we can consider it probable that minor shifts could have led to completely different paths of development. The same applies today: the future is not fixed but offers different pathways. To understand the current situation and the importance of different courses of action, we need to become familiar with both alternative visions of radically different future electric systems and the mechanisms that guide development in one direction or another. This theme highlights the broad lines, stretched across a long historical period, in the development of electric grids.

Technology choice in a historical perspective

To understand the mechanisms and gain perspective on our own time, we can look back and examine the history of electric systems, why they became what they became and what alternative paths were never taken. We need to understand the interplay between society, culture and technology. How has the view of humans within the energy system changed over time, and what do the insights mean for sustainable societal development. Which stakeholder groups are included and which are excluded? What makes certain discourses and visions gain strength? What role does scientific development play as an enabler in relation to established industrial structures and economic interests?

Technology choice with a future perspective and global outlook

Another way in which we can gain perspective on our current choices is to investigate the possibilities of the future and what is happening around the world. Even if one group views a certain type of electric system architecture as probable and desirable, possibly even unavoidable, other groups that see other trends or emphasise other values may consider totally other directions to be most reasonable. In this subproject we open a discussion around alternate system solutions and their analysis. We cover the range from global supernetworks in which the majority of people continue to be rather passive consumers – possibly while becoming more interconnected, to smart grids with many interconnected and more active prosumers, and systems in which balance and self-sufficiency are established in increasingly smaller networks, right down to the level of the individual household. One method that can be used to consider the question is deductive analysis: which configurations are possible? Another method is to study what is happening around the world: are there any seeds of new electric systems configurations in wealthy and developing countries, with different forms of governance and in different latitudes, that can spread to other parts of the world? What barriers and drivers shape these, and which actors influence and are influenced by the change?