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.