As the United States sped along the Information Superhighway through the 1990s, it left its electricity grid in the dust.
Now, energy efficiency has become an imperative, and momentum is building to merge information and power into a smart grid that can promote energy efficiency and savings.
Miami became the one of the largest U.S. cities to embrace that shift last month when it announced it would invest $200 million in smart meters for homes. Boulder, Colo., Austin, Texas, Southern California Edison and Duke Energy Indiana are also planning smart grids or smart metering programs.
The federal government is getting on board, too. President Obama and Energy Secretary Steven Chu regularly talk about a smart grid future – built by U.S. innovators. Congress this year has already invested $4 billion in smart grid technology in the stimulus package alone, and federal agencies are getting to work designing an overhaul of the power system.
Smart grid technology will eventually revolutionize how we generate, distribute and consume energy on both macro and micro levels.
To get there, however, the nation will have to get over some significant technological and institutional hurdles.
A Glimpse of the Power Grid's Future
Under the current power grid system, utilities don't learn about power outages until their customers call. Smart grids will be able to diagnose themselves, as well as monitor electricity demands in real time.
Smart grid technology will also allow customers to sell electricity they generate from rooftop solar panels and other renewable sources back into the system, which will be able to locally store energy and incorporate intermittent sources like wind and solar.
Using smart meters, customers will be able to monitor their electricity use online – and get suggestions for minimizing it, either by turning certain appliances off or using them at different times. At the micro level, appliances themselves may use the smart grid’s intelligence. For instances, refrigerators may one day have chips that keep the ice maker from running during the heat of the day when air conditioners are also sapping power from the grid.
Increasing the efficiency of the electricity grid and adding smart metering could have a huge impact on energy use and consumer costs. In 2007, 9.4 percent of electricity generated was lost in transmission and distribution.
First, Writing the Rules of the Road
But wide implementation of smart grid technology is a while off. There are several large institutional challenges, including systemwide standards and interoperability. As Garry Brown, chairman of New York State Public Service Commission explains:
“If I let Utility A go one route and Utility B go the other route and Utility C a third, did I just set up a system in which three systems can’t talk to each other and the grid operator is not going to understand what is going on?”
The stimulus package gave $10 million to the National Institute for Standards and Technology to begin writing standards for the new power grid. NIST expects by year’s end to have Smart Grid standards that will ensure the interoperability of systems and appliances.
NIST is already working on a draft roadmap for smart grid development, and it plans a stakeholders summit May 19-20 in Washington. At a workshop last week, discussions focused on creating a system that encourages collaborative energy and efficiency, is transparent, secure, avoids congestion, and is loosely coupled, flexible and will last.
Safety and Synchronicity
Technologically, smart grid has two major challenges: how to integrate renewable energy sources and how to maintain cybersecurity.
The smart grid needs to be able to store renewable energy that is generated when demand is low and provide it to customers when demand is high. Right now, energy used at peak times tends to be inefficient and environmentally dirty. At the same time, the grid should be able to accommodate plug-in electric vehicles, which many anticipate will become more widely used.
The need for cybersecurity will also have to be balanced with the push for open standards, which would allow upgrades or changes to be made to the system with software changes, rather hardware substitutions.
“What we’re doing here is opening up two-way communications," Brown says. "We’re giving someone the ability to remotely turn a building on or off. If the wrong people get a hold of that power, we’ve got a real problem. We’d better get cybersecurity in the system as we build it."
Attachment Size Interim_Smart_Grid_Roadmap20090423.pdf 1.39 MB