As a green consumer you’ve probably heard the term “Smart Grid” more than once. But you may not have had the time to learn much about it.
As a green consumer you’ve probably heard the term “Smart Grid” more than once, But you may not have had the time to learn much about it. “Smart Grid 101,” is a 5 part series where you can learn what the smart grid is and why we need it, discover the technology that will drive it, learn how the smart grid will impact electric vehicles, get a global progress update, and even find out what you can do to support the transition to smart grid.
The United States is not the only country in the world facing energy problems and unreliable, outdated, and problematic systems. Other countries are facing the same issues. Each country has its own vision of what a real "smart grid" is, and every country has a different time frame in mind for implementing their vision. Although our series “Smart Grid 101” focuses on the U.S. smart grid initiative, Part 4 of the series: “Smart Grid Global Update” will address smart grid efforts around the world.
PART ONE: WHAT IS THE SMART GRID? AND WHY DO WE NEED IT?
“Smart grid” refers to adding computer and communications technology to the existing electrical power grid system—a complex network that routes electricity from energy utilities to consumers.
The current grid infrastructure was designed more than fifty years ago. Here’s how it works today. Control stations, located at key points on the grid, monitor electricity use. Because electricity can’t be stored in large quantities, it has to be produced on demand. When energy consumption hits very high levels, the control stations activate reserve power plants, known as “peaking” power plants, or re-route electricity from other parts of the grid, to meet energy needs.
Increasing power needs exert stress on the grid, and this leads to blackouts and unreliable service; both significant economic and safety threats. Right now, if there's a breakdown at your local substation, the utility usually finds out when customers call to complain.
Applying communication and information technologies to these power grid systems will enable important efficiencies that will make the grid more reliable. Improvements include the ability of the grid to automatically monitor and evaluate grid conditions, and report these conditions back to the utility’s control room. Devices on the network can communicate with each other to automate re-routing and switching to avoid power lines with faults, and detect and even repair faults in wires before they lead to outages.
The smart grid also introduces a new level of communication between the consumer and the power suppliers. The current interface between the suppliers and the customer is the meter, which has remained basically the same, technologically-speaking, for the past century, and cannot communicate information to or from the consumer. Smart grids will allow power companies and consumers to gather precise information about the quantity and timing of household consumption, and enable consumers to receive information, such as real-time pricing and emergency grid requests to lower energy consumption.
Smart grid improvements will also integrate with intermittent energy sources that pose a challenge to the current system, like wind and solar power. New technologies will encourage consumers to invest in “distributed generation,” or locally-generated power sources, such as solar panels on a home, to supplement their power needs. Making such investments worthwhile to consumers also requires regulatory change to allow different pricing contracts. For example, a home could be powered by its own solar energy during the day, and the consumer could sell any extra energy produced by his or her panels back to the larger grid (this contract option is called “net metering”). The credit for the energy sold during the day may cover what the home uses that evening.
Plus, smart grids accommodate plug-in hybrid cars, allowing consumers to move away from petroleum-based transportation. (Watch for Part 3 in our Smart Grid 101 Series: “The Smart Grid in Motion: Powering Electric Vehicles” coming in March.
According to a United States Department of Energy study internal modernization of US grids with smart grid capabilities would save between 46 and 117 billion dollars over the next 20 years. Smart grid features can expand energy efficiency beyond the grid into the home by coordinating low priority home devices such as water heaters so that their use of power takes advantage of the most desirable energy sources. Smart grids can also coordinate the production of power from large numbers of small power producers such as owners of rooftop solar panels — which would be extremely difficult for local utility operators to do on their own.
So when will you be on the smart grid?
Like highways and the Internet, the smart grid will take years to build. The first signs will be better consumer energy-saving tools, like Smart Meters for monitoring and managing energy use. So don’t miss Part Two in the Smart Grid 101 series: “Smart Grid. Smart Technology.” In it you’ll learn about the companies and the technologies that are driving the smart grid future.