Thinking Tech

Smart grid basics and why you should care

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The smart grid touches many issues of modern day life. When conservatives talk about how the current administration is hijacking the future of our children, the smart grid is how we're investing in it. So just what is the smart grid? by John Dodge

While industry insiders debate the finer points of the smart grid in Washington this week at GridWeek, I am realizing that consumers know precious little about the overhaul that our nation's electricity infrastructure is about to undergo.

In fact, I know just enough about the smart grid to be dangerous, but am learning fast. The good news is educational web sites are starting to pop up. General Electric (GE) today introduced it'syoursmartgrid.com to educate consumers. The site breaks the smart grid into six key issues: energy independence, green jobs, power reliability, modern infrastructure, environment and renewables and and risings costs.

That the smart grid touches all these issues should grab your attention. The smart grid can even be applied to the earth's most precious resource, water. So when shrill voices whine about how the current administration is hijacking the future of our children, the smart grid is how our tax dollars are being used to invest in it.

If you happen to be interested, you will hear a lot this week about partnerships and infrastructure projects coming out of GridWeek. But unless you have a basic understanding about how the smart grid benefits you, it's unlikely to resonate.

The Smart Grid promises to allow consumers to monitor their electricity usage and to a much greater extent, control it. Even if your electric bill is a relatively small percentage of your overall expenses today, increased reliance on electricity as we trim petroleum consumption will make it more important in the future.

The enabling technology is the Internet although the smart grid is not the Internet. But networking permitting two-way communication between the utility and the customer is vital to smart grid technology. Some have called the smart grid the the Energy Internet or EnerNet.

I can't think of the perfect analogy, but online checking comes close. It allows you to budget, pay your bills and generally be more efficient with your money. The Internet gives you access to that account, but behind it is proprietary banking technology that keeps your account information secure, accurate and reliable.

The smart grid exploits the same technology and gives you insight into your electricity consumption. However, automation is a big part of the smart grid. Smart appliances in your home can be set to draw power during off-peak hours when the rates are lowest. But for that to happen, appliances have to know when the off-peak hours are. That's where the smart grid network comes in.

Smart appliances receive information from the utility about the times of peak and slack demand. It informs  the appliance which is programmed by the consumer to adjust activation to when power is cheapest. Smart appliances are not here yet, but they are coming.

The smart grid is also good for the utility which can better control surging demand. When everyone in the Northeast switches on the AC in the daytime during a heatwave, the utility can muddle through better if consumers delay using their dryers until the middle of the night when peak demand trails off (whatever happened to the clothes lines!?).

Smart meters and interoperability standards are the primary focus of smart grid activity at the moment and funded to a great degree by Stimulus dollars. Smart meters are the key device that allow you and the utility to communicate and monitor electricity consumption. The immediate payoff to the utility is the elimination of manned meter reading. It's possible that even smart meters will become obsolete, replaced by a simple wireless device that facilitates the data exchange. In essence, that's what a smart meter is already.

Interoperability standards are important so all the gear works together and are being formulated by key standards bodies such as ANSI and the IEEE with coordination coming from the federal government. Dept. of Energy Secretary Steven Chu was slated to address these in his GridWeek keynote this morning.

Who gets the most benefit from the smart grid?

At first, it will be the utilities although the build-out comes at huge expense with installation of smart meters and the creation of the network. For the smart grid to get built, much has to happen at the utility and federal levels and that's what the GridWeek discussion is about.

Stay tuned for more GridWeek coverage this week and how the smart grid impacts you.

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John Dodge

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Dodge has written for the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, PC Week (now eWeek), EDN, Design News, Electronic Business, Bio-IT World, Health-IT World, Lowell Sun, Haverhill Gazette and Newburyport Daily News. He is based in Massachusetts. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure