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What is the smart grid anyway? [Video]

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The smart grid. Sounds good, right? But what exactly is it? And does that mean we have a dumb grid now?

"The grid, it is smart today," Laura Ipsen, a senior vice president at Cisco, told the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-e) conference on March 2. "The weaving of IT [information technology] and ET [energy technology] can make it smarter."

Of course, Cisco sells the equipment to make this a reality and the simplest answer to these questions may be one word: sensors. The smart grid is the continuation of an ongoing effort to add sensors to almost every part of the electrical grid. These sensors will not only free residents from the duty of reporting power outages but also enable utilities to better integrate more temperamental resources like power derived from the fickle wind.

Here’s a video explaining more:



The smart grid is more than just sensors, of course. It’s also better technology, bringing the wireless and communications revolutions of the past few decades to the technology that enabled them in the first place: electricity. This already allows the two-way flow of energy and information at places like my friend and colleague George Musser’s house in New Jersey, as chronicled at the Solar at Home blog. The technologies range from smart meters to glowing orbs that change color to signal when electricity prices change. It might enable us to finally plug into an electric vehicle future (depending on better batteries). And it could allow utilities to avoid blackouts by reaching into the home or office and turning up the air conditioner set-point a few degrees on a hot day to prevent overload.

There are other ways to avoid blackouts, of course, like investing in a more robust grid with more options. "We have to comply with the laws of physics," electrical engineer Eugene Litvinov of ISO New England, a regional grid manager, noted at that ARPA–e conference. "The complexity of the system is such that we should expect blackouts." One way or the other, the aging electric grid will need to be refreshed.

But that’s one of the issues with the smart grid: Who exactly is it smart for? It’s quite clear that utilities have a lot to gain from a better electric grid. What’s far less clear is if the actual home users of electricity have anything to gain. Yes, it will allow customers to save electricity—at the expense of time since any savings would require programming and monitoring your home’s energy use—but electricity remains "dirt cheap," in the word of energy efficiency guru Art Rosenfeld. What might make electricity more expensive, especially in the absence of a price on carbon dioxide pollution that makes burning coal pricey—an option no longer on the political agenda? Paying for smart meters and other upgrades to the grid.

What else will the smart grid bring to folks like you and I? I’m not smart enough to figure that out yet.

Editor’s Note: David Biello is the host of a forthcoming series on PBS in April, titled "Beyond the Light Switch." The series, produced by Detroit Public Television, will explore how transformation is coming to how we use and produce electricity, impacting the environment, national security and the economy.

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  1. 1. mhilm 1:02 pm 03/22/2011

    "What else will the smart grid bring to folks like you and *I*? I’m not smart enough to figure that out yet."
    Ouch. was that a deliberate grammatical irony?

    Link to this
  2. 2. lmckee 2:15 pm 03/22/2011

    re: "What’s far less clear is if the actual home users of electricity have anything to gain."

    The smart grid will help users conserve as electrons get more expensive. More importantly, as the cost of a PV roof falls to the level of a conventional roof, home PRODUCERS and other roof owners (and owners of energy storage devices such as e-vehicles) will benefit from a smart real-time market in electrons. As "rate payers" become "rate earners," they will insist on fair treatment in the marketplace. Utilities will eventually focus more on grid maintenance and market management and less on generation and sales.

    (I think distributed ownership of generation wealth will help in a small way to mitigate calls for redistribution of wealth as accelerating automation collides with stagnating education.)

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  3. 3. Vicki 3:47 pm 03/22/2011

    I think one big issue that needs to be addressed is security. The smart meters gather a remendous amount of information/data about each household that can be translated into patterns people are at home, on vacation, etc. What protections are in place to ensure that data doesn’t get into the wrong hands?

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  4. 4. kamilyn 10:19 pm 03/22/2011

    I agree with Vicki. Security is a BIG issue. Second to that, I would propose that there are few safeguards to protect the consumer. Frankly, how would I be able to dispute a problem caused by a malfunctioning sensor? What if the sensor erroneously reported that I used far MORE electricity than I actually did? Are there safeguards to protect me from being forced to pay for a "data" malfunction?

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  5. 5. bucketofsquid 12:54 pm 03/23/2011

    It would help a lot if the so called "smart grid" had anything even vaguely resembling standards. Standards for communication, reporting protocols, privacy and security are sadly lacking. Then there is the whole legal liability for power curtailment as is usually mentioned as one of the primary benefits. Curtailing power delivery or adjusting in-home power usage may lead to serious medical issues for the physically vulnerable.

    My employer backed way off of the smart grid idea for these reasons as well as the enormous cost with no guarantee of return on investment.

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  6. 6. Momus 12:39 am 03/25/2011

    > "bringing the wireless"

    Oh no! Wireless is great, but too much dependency a single communication technology will cause a disaster eventually. We need to finally solve the Internet over the power lines as an alternative. A ‘smart grid’ will need it as a backup to the wireless.

    And as a byproduct, perhaps US can catch up to other countries in the universal access to fast Internet. Else we will keep falling behind.

    Link to this

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