What’s the Big Deal About A Smart Grid?

Utility_worker.jpgThe American electricity grid is a century old. There are approximately 157,000 miles of high voltage electric transmission lines in the U.S.. Since 1990, electricity demand has increased 25 percent, but construction of power plants has decreased 30 percent. As the Department of Energy (DOE) states, the biggest challenge for electric distribution is “responding to rapidly changing customer needs for electricity.” Enter a smart grid.
The National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) defines a smart grid as an “improved electricity supply chain that runs from a major power plant all the way inside your home.” A smart grid provides many benefits, according to the DOE, including:
1. Relieve transmission congestion
2. Relax transmission reliability limits
3. Transmission capital deferral
4. Substation peak load and backup
5. Voltage support
6. Reliability enhancement

With all the benefits a smart grid can bring, it is good the federal government has invested in its implementation. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) directed federal and state agencies to create programs to help implement smart grid technologies. EISA also provided billions of dollars in financial incentives through 2012 for R&D and implementing smart grid technologies. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, signed into law on February 17, provided $11 billion for a smart grid.
ISO New England recently released a report about the smart grid. The report listed the “daunting” challenges facing implementing a smart grid. Some of the challenges ISO New England outlined are:
1. Lack of standards for smart grid technologies.
2. Shifting from a centrally controlled grid to a more distributed system will make operating a power system more complex.
3. The amount of data will significantly increase within the smart grid, which will need solutions that presently are not in use.
4. System operators and planners will need extensive training.
Investing in smart grid technologies will ultimately save money. IBM’s Venture Capital Group claims that every day billions of dollars are wasted “generating energy that never reaches a single light bulb.” Rob Pratt, program manager at Pacific Northwest National Lab, said, “We could save $70 billion in investments in the next 20 years by offsetting construction of new infrastructure that would otherwise be needed to meet load growth.”
Pacific Northwest Laboratory released the results in 2007 of its test of thermostats connected to the internet in 112 Seattle area homes. Pratt said the test showed that consumers are “willing to have utilities remotely dial down the appliances to lessen the load on a power grid and reduce their consumption.”

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.