What is this Smart Grid thing?

Power lines are part of the smart grid

Power lines are part of the smart grid

What is the Smart Grid? If you want the official answer, check out the Department of Energy's comments on the Smart Grid.  If you want the answer you can explain to your children, stay here!  Basically, the Smart Grid is a way for Utilities to better monitor and communicate electricity consumption and distribution to its customers.

Right now, our grid is composed of a millions of miles of power lines connected to a bunch of big, centrally located power plants (about 50% of which is coal).  The electricity produced at the centrally located sites is pushed onto the electric grid and distributed to the homes.  For the most part, the Utilities dont know where the electricity goes once it leaves the power plant and they don't know how it is used.

How will the Smart Grid help the United States reduce our electricity consumption?

Right now, most of us still have "dumb" analog meters monitoring how much electricity we consume in our homes.  Power comes in from the power lines (the grid), spins a little wheel with numbers on it (the more you use, the faster the wheel spins), and once a month a meter reader (you know, the guy your dog always barks at) comes by to check your meter.  This is the way utilities have been doing it for decades.  You would think things would have improved faster since the  first days of indoor plumbing!

With the adoption of the Smart Grid, utilities will be able to see in real time what users who have Smart meters (meters that communicate information back to the utility over a network) are using.  Users will also be able to see much more detailed statistics about how they use power.  Basically, a smart meter is a TED that you and the utilities use together for your home.

This provides you with a monitoring function so you can better manage your consumption, but it provides the utility the ability to charge a tiered rate for their power.  Basically, if you are using power on a hot afternoon (when electricity use is at its highest - mostly due to air conditioners) you will pay a higher rate than if you are using electricity at 3 AM, when demand is low.  Why should what you pay for electricity not follow the economic laws of supply and demand?

With your current "dumb" meter, the utility has no clue what times you use your power, they just know the total value you use each month.  The smart grid gives them the ability to see when you use that power, but it gives you that ability also, allowing you to know when to avoid using power in times of peak demand.  While this is the main function of the smart grid, there are other benefits that will be covered in another blog.

Basically, the Smart Grid helps utilities and users better manage usage of electricity.  Enabling us to be a cleaner, more efficient society!

For more information, check out Wikipedia's comments on the Smart Grid or American Progress' great report.

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Why not take this to the next level. If we have smart meters that can provide an instanteuos price why not allow users to practice energy arbitrage with say a refrigirator sized appliance that can store say 50 KWhrs and allow the device to automatically buy and sell based on price and some algorithim which is aware of the daily trends. Given that they "average" house consumes around 10,000KWhrs/year an in home storage capcitor of 50 KWhrs would amounts to about 2 days reserve for the average home. On a wide scale this would enable vast load leveling and grid stability can be had just be controlling the real time by and sell prices. Lead acid batteries have an energy density of about 70 Wh/Litre which yeild about 750 litres - less than a cubic meter - a 1 m tall fridge. While I realize that the device is a bit more complicated with conversion loses and depth of cycle issues to manage it certainly doesn't seem beyond the realm of the practical if we had the an environment that would support this kind of device. For industrial settings things are a bit easier as they are some what more aligned with the base load though industrial scale energy storage maybe practical for industrail users as well with the right cost incentives. A second communication link would also be required to report the available capacity to control the spinup or spin down of more high inertia generators. Obviously there are enviromental risks and maintanence costs associated with such a system & devices. However, it certainly does offer the advantage of making the currently existing grid infrastructure far more friendly to intermitant sources and their properties. A new model maybe required for utilities so that it is in their interest to promote, encourage and sell them. Well if they owed them then maybe they can get it done just based on their return on capital model. It is especially attractive to the first users in which means given the right set of circumstances it is something that could get done in a "rush" which given the current climate/carbon mess might be a good thing. Once wide adoption occurs obviously the benefits drop to individuals but with respect to the whole society they increase with adoption - more intermitant low cost sources can be supported. If this sort of device could be enabled along with instatneous pricing (doesn'r really work without it) then you can get a very large temporal decoupling between demand and supply which has all kinds of benefits. Just a thought.
Bill, I think that is what the people at <a href="" rel="nofollow">Gridpoint</a> are trying to do. They have a whole host of devices that are going to work in conjunction with the smart grid. I dont know if you have read Thomas Friedman's new book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, but he mentions exactly what you are talking about in a section where he looks into the future. Thanks for the post!
You're right. There are a whole host of ways the Smart Grid is going to improve every aspect of how energy is delivered, controlled, and monitored. Hopefully this blog will be able to develop a forum concerning this topic, as we are going to see a lot of developments over the next few months/years. Thanks for the comment Ed!
can save money through better matching of production capability and demand, lowering investment costs. It also reduces the number of visits for meter readers, which saves both labor and fuel costs for the utility. Good ideas. Ed

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