The Great Green Grid: A Smart Grid That Lets Us Better Control Our Energy Use May Finally Be Ready to Launch

By Martin, Mike | E Magazine, July-August 2010 | Go to article overview

The Great Green Grid: A Smart Grid That Lets Us Better Control Our Energy Use May Finally Be Ready to Launch


Martin, Mike, E Magazine


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Our current electric power grid hasn't changed in the last 100 years. It's designed to move electricity in one direction--from mostly fossil-fueled generation plants to user--and makes only limited use of automation and information technology. And it can't collect power consumption information in real time. The smart grid would change that dynamic with a two-way flow of both electricity and information. It would also open the door for renewable energy sources like wind and solar to get connected and start to reduce the national dependence on dirty fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas.

Many homes already feature solar panels and even wind turbines that could actually add electricity to the grid. But the current system of transmission lines isn't able to determine how much renewable energy will be available at a given time--after all, solar power and wind power are both subject to fluctuation--so utilities produce the same amount of electricity regardless. And, in general, they have to overcompensate. In order to match electricity supply with demand, utilities decide on a level of demand that would be excessive and then match it.

"In reality," write Lena Hansen and Amory B. Lovins for the Rocky Mountain Institute, "neither electricity demand nor generation is steady over time. Demand changes at every moment as individual devices turn on and off." What's more, the pair write, all generators are intermittent, too. Lots of coal-fired, gas-fired and nuclear power plants have unexpected shutdowns. From 2003-2007, coal-fired capacity was shut down an average of 12.3% of the time--4.3% without warning--according to the North American Electric Reliability Council.

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Utilities, in other words, have had to adapt to sudden changes in demand and supply since the current grid was built in the late 1800s. The only difference now is that they have a lot more clean and efficient renewable energy generators at their disposal--but not the technology to use them.

ENTER THE SMART GRID

A smart grid--basically the electric grid gone digital-would allow power plants to respond, in real time, to power needs. The "real time" aspect is important. It means consumers will be able to decide ahead of time what they are willing to pay. Run a washing machine at night, for instance, and pay a cheaper rate. Tell the utility company to diminish or even shut down service during peak usage times, and reduce your rate even further.

Adding consumer control represents a big paradigm shift. Rather than "broadcasting" power down one-way transmission lines, the smart grid promises the same interactivity that transformed communication over the Internet. On a digital network of power lines, transformers, turbines, homes, businesses and even automobiles, energy will be a two-way street.

"The smart grid will allow distributors, meters and even appliances to communicate with each other, while providing customers with information, tools and pricing options to manage their energy costs and usage," says James Robb, senior vice president for enterprise planning and development at New England's largest energy supplier, Northeast Utilities. "With a smart grid, there are no excuses for using energy inefficiently. We will have tools to control our usage that do not exist today, like using a cell phone to change the thermostat settings in your home in response to peaking energy prices."

But the dream of using cell phones and smart meters to reduce energy prices is still a ways off. Plenty of infrastructure and investment obstacles remain. "The infrastructure challenges are enormous," says Gus Ezcurra, CEO and president of San Diego-based Advanced Telemetry, a smart grid technology provider. "Smart grid implementation will be a decades-long endeavor."

Other concerns--chief among them, new questions about privacy as private and public utilities extend their digital fingers into individual homes--pose additional hurdles. …

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