The Low Down on the Smart Grid

Talk about the Smart Grid has been in the news a lot lately and $11 billion have been dog-eared  for Smart Grid infrastructure in the House version of the US stimulus package. While we often hear that it is ‘necessary’ or ‘revolutionary’ most people, like me, have no idea why or if it is either. I did some research and here is what I found:

1.Smart Grid is more that a series of power lines. It is a complex package of interconnected devices that interact with future technologies such as appliances and electric cars in your house. There are still debates about what the right package is so it is likely that the one we eventually go with will have all the great features we mention.

2.The technology empowers the consumer by allowing houses to use energy when it is most available and therefore cheapest. So, for example, your plug-in car would be set to charge by 7am and would pull energy from the grid when it is in most supply. Similarly, on a larger scale, energy would be transferred between locations as demand and supply change. This would lead to power generation at a more efficient level.

3.Our current electricity system is a huge maze of 3000 separate private utility companies and 2000 independent power producers. The Smart Grid concept wouldn’t do anything to make this any simpler or efficient, and will probably make it worse.

4.While the Smart Grid allows local power generation to be used by the grid effectively, something deemed as necessary for real reductions in energy emissions, it is not clear how the large power plants will interact with this system in the short-term. In some trials, power plants were shut down during low demand times (this is part of the whole efficiency idea) but then were unable to be restarted when demand rose again and it took two weeks to get them back on line.

5.There may be a trade-off between efficiency and vulnerability. The just-in-time delivery of energy makes Smart Grid more efficient but may also make a power failure more likely if the system is stretched too thin. This could be countered by the fact that the grid will have more control over demand by, for example, controlling energy use of individual appliances but we’re not sure how this will pan out.

6.While Smart Grid may not be perfect, it is essential for large-scale changes in both power generation (ie in renewables) and power conservation at a household level. It is an essential upgrade if we want to move away from large-scale and dirty or nuclear power generation as it allows energy to be transferred and controlled more effectively.

Boulder Colorado has committed itself to become the first Smart Grid town in the USA and should be online in the next few years. I’ll keep you posted with any more information that I find!