Smart grid demystified?

Posted: Thursday, October 21, 2010

I have no idea how the innards of my computer function, but I sure get frustrated when it doesn't work. The same is true for most people when they flip the switch and the light doesn't come on. We may not know or care how our electricity is produced and delivered to our homes and businesses, but almost everything we do depends on it.

The electric grid - that complex combination of power plants, transmission lines, and local utilities - is what we rely on for our electricity. And we know all too well what happens when there is a power failure. Like the room-size Univac computer, our electric grid is outdated and showing signs of old age. While it may not be obvious in our everyday lives, it is creaking and groaning with each new electric device we plug in. To meet our needs for power, the electric industry is constantly trying to find solutions that can offset our growing power usage.

Developers, for example, are building more renewable energy power plants - wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, and hydroelectric. Builders and homeowners are installing distributed energy like rooftop solar to produce electricity during periods of highest usage and prices. Appliance manufacturers are developing smart appliances to operate only when demand and prices are lower.

As the need to reduce oil consumption becomes more obvious for both environmental and national security reasons, car companies are busy developing electric vehicles that will use our electric grid to charge at night and other times when power is cheap and plentiful.

All of these efforts require a set of technologies that may seem somewhat like that computer mother board or electric switchbox - mysterious but essential. What system of technologies will be pulling all of these efforts together? It's called the smart grid.

A basic part of that smart grid is the smart meter we are beginning to hear about. This new meter provides signals to home energy management systems, allows us to understand how we use electricity and helps us make decisions based on price, convenience or other factors.

But a lot of smart grid technologies are not gadgets; they are what we might call digital apps for our electric grid. These sensors and controls can help utilities see when equipment needs maintaining or replacing; when electric lines are becoming overloaded so that they can adjust; when a weather event might cause outages; and when it is most opportune to use renewable energy resources.

The electric grid is an enormously complex, aging and increasingly over-extended system. Smart grid technologies will enable it to be more reliable, more flexible, more secure, and cleaner. These technologies may not seem sexy or cool but are necessary to integrate renewable energy sources, make our homes and businesses more efficient, and help wean us from oil dependence.

While the technological challenges of smart grid are being addressed by communication, information technology and electric utility companies, the important remaining challenge is consumer acceptance. As Janine Migden Ostrander of the Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel has observed, "Consumers need to understand the value of smart grid for them before they will engage with it. Smart grid needs to be made simple."

For example, many consumers have learned how to reduce gasoline consumption and save money by employing a variety of gas saving measures. In addition to buying a more fuel efficient car, many consumers now keep tire pressure at optimum levels; adjust driving speeds and utilize coasting; and keep track at every fill-up of changes in their car's miles per gallon. Today's cars also give drivers feedback as to their mileage in real time. But when it comes to saving electricity, consumers lack both available information (feedback on daily or even hourly usage), and an awareness of the best tactics to use in saving electricity. The smart grid will help consumers make good decisions on how best to control their electricity use. It is up to those of us in the industry working closely with consumer organizations and other groups to demonstrate the advantages.

• Katherine Hamilton is the president of the GridWise Alliance, a coalition of stakeholders that advocates for a smarter grid. Readers may write to her at GridWise Alliance Inc., 1155 15th Street NW, Suite 500, Washington, D.C. 20005.

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