Coronavirus crisis could promote smart grids in Latin America


The current coronavirus pandemic has caused a huge shock not only to the health system in Latin America and globally but also to the economy and society as a whole. In only a couple of weeks the whole world has stopped because of the advance of a virus barely known to us but that has tested infrastructures, institutions and everything we thought worked.

Among other things, the pandemic has shown how much modern society depends on electricity. Regardless of ideologies or forms of government, a similar pattern can be seen all over the world:

  • Millions of people confined to their homes, working remotely, buying through e-commerce sites and using online video platforms to find entertainment.
  • Millions of students learning through online teaching platforms, taking courses via videoconference systems or using the huge database that the Web represents.
  • A network of essential services that cannot stop working and that needs energy: health services, security, transport, supplies, etc.
  • Mass-production industries, highly automated, which must continue to produce, especially those related to the food and health sectors.

Ensuring the supply of electricity is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for all these essential services and industries to be able to continue working. The crisis caused by the coronavirus reminds us of the essential role of electricity in our lives. It provides a hint of how the electricity role will expand and evolve in the upcoming years. In a certain way, it confirms the path to follow was proposed a decade ago when the concept of smart grids began to be discussed.

These grids represent the evolution of the electrical grids, where the integration of two-way communication systems, the deployment of smart meters, the integration of distributed renewable energy sources and the implementation of control and disturbance mitigation strategies make it possible to meet the energy demands of this century.

Smart grids have begun to be implemented in most developed countries, although much work and investment remains to make them fully functional. However, the situation is completely different in developing countries, where smart grids have been relegated to attend to other priorities.

Latin America is one of the regions where the advance of smart grids has scarcely been evident in a few scattered pilot projects and in the regulation of the use of distributed generation systems at the household sector level. Also, the Latin American region is being hit by the pandemic, although not with the severity of what is currently happening in Europe or the USA.

Although it represents an important part of the world economy, with three G20 countries (Argentina, Brazil and Mexico), the electricity grids in Latin America still suffer from significant deficiencies and need to be upgraded to meet future challenges.

The power outage that left Argentina and parts of southern Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay without power in June 2019 is just one example of this issue. The distribution grid in Brazil represents another example, where a complex system that provides service for more than 68 million customers provides a low, or null, degree of automation.

The electricity supply is something that should not be taken for granted. The coronavirus crisis could represent an opportunity to advance, in a sustained and concrete way, the implementation of smart grids in Latin America. Even from the point of view of health safety for operators in distribution companies, since the deployment of smart meters avoids the need to send technicians to survey customer consumption, automates the management of outages and reconnections and reduces fault-finding times in the low-voltage distribution network.

In Latin America, where there is a significant number of rural or semi-urban customers, the implementation of remote metering and control systems also avoids the displacement of work crews and speeds up the handling of claims, even in a situation like the current one, where people’s mobility is restricted by the risk of infection. The current crisis highlights the critical value of electricity infrastructure and technical expertise.

The answer to many of the energy demands triggered by the pandemic can be found in the conceptual model of smart grids. Modern society is increasingly dependent on digital technology for its daily life, and energy use is increasing in the form of electricity.

Today the urgency is to address the severe health problem caused by the pandemic. However, it must not be lost sight of the fact that in this crisis many things can be resigned, but electricity cannot be given up. More than ever, this may be the opportunity for developing countries, and in particular, Latin America, to leave the past behind and start moving along the path of the smart grids.

About the author

Patricio G. Donato is currently working as Independent Researcher of the Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas (CONICET) and Adjoint Proffesor of the Universidad Nacional de Mar del Plata (UNMdP), Argentina. He received the degree in electronics engineering from the Universidad Nacional de la Patagonia San Juan Bosco (UNPSJB), Argentina, and the Ph.D. degree in electronics from the Universidad de Alcalá (UAH), Spain.

He leads a line of research on Smart Grids within CONICET and UNMDP, focusing primarily on issues related to the measurement and evaluation of power quality problems and also signal processing applied to the detection of signals in noisy environments, such as powerline communications (PLC).