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What is the Smart Grid?

Just in the last two decades, we’ve seen our daily communications progress from landlines and pagers to smartphones.  Though the devices we use on a daily basis have been dramatically improving over the years, we’re charging our iPhones with century-old grid technology.

The North American electric grid, otherwise known as the “largest machine in the world,” is the intricate network of power stations, transmission lines, transformers, and distribution lines that power our daily lives.  The idea for the North American electric grid was developed about a hundred years ago.  A hundred years ago, the average person’s energy demands were quite modest in comparison with today.  A centralized energy model used to make sense.

US energy consumption is expected to increase 41% by 2030.

With a drastic increase in demand for energy from a growing population, the North American electric grid is under enormous pressure.  We’re currently experiencing an increase in blackouts and brownouts because of the stress on this dated infrastructure. Though the grid is actually 99.97 % reliable, Americans still pay $150 billion every year because of these disturbances in grid electricity.

Long story short- the grid is old and in need of change.  This is why everyone is talking about “Smart Grid.”  With all the hype about Smart Grid, it has many wondering what its defining feature is.

Truthfully, the Smart Grid is more of a concept than one specific technology. The goal of Smart Grid is to adapt the existing infrastructure to 21st Century demands by implementing modern communications technology.

The easiest way to conceptualize what “Smart Grid” means is to imagine the entire electrical infrastructure connected to the internet.   The Smart Grid is a vision of a more flexible, efficient, and reliable grid that will support renewable energy and engage consumers in new ways.   This won’t be an overnight change, but rather a gradual move towards this ideal.

The Smart Grid will be able to collect and respond to data collected throughout the entire electricity grid.   Transmission and distribution sensors will be installed throughout the grid, enabling communication between the devices themselves and with utilities operations.   This will allow the grid to determine the most efficient way to transmit and distribute electricity, saving money and keeping the cost lower.

Remote control and automation technologies make the entire system more reliable and efficient.  The Smart Grid will enable us to understand and improve the generation, transmission, distribution and consumption of electricity, creating a more balanced and efficient grid. Utilities will be able to predict, detect, and respond to blackouts/brownouts immediately by without having to wait for a customer to call in and notify the utility.

Smart Grid will transmit electricity to the end user more efficiently, keeping the cost of energy as low as possible.   Smart Grid technology will accommodate the current model of centralized energy production, but it will also support the integration of distributed energy resources (distributed generation, storage, and renewables).    The Smart Grid’s ability to balance itself will also mean that a renewable energy, such as wind power, can be scaled in the future.

With the realization of Smart Grid ideals, the Smart Grid’s 2-way data communications will promote consumer participation.   This communication between the energy provider and the user will encourage consumers to take a more active role in their consumption of energy through real-time monitoring and pricing.

Through this real-time pricing, Smart Grid will incorporate demand response, rather than trying to increase supply.  Real-time prices will help consumers reduce their personal usage and create an incentive to help balance the demand for electricity during peak hours.  The Department of Energy conducted a study that showed that when exposed to real-time energy pricing by smart devices, consumers reduced their consumption by 10%.

The fruition of the Smart Grid model will make way for variety of developments in distributed energy resources.  Will the Smart Grid be the first step in a large-scale move toward distributed generation?  Could our current model of centralized power become a thing of the past?


Author: Tom Jackson

I believe clean, renewable energy is key to the evolution of society as a whole. Solar powers our planet, why not harness it to power humanity? Let's power our homes, our work, and our vehicles with solar energy. It begins with raising awareness and encouraging those around us to go green.

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