The North American power grid is the culmination of all of the regional power networks transporting electricity from generating plants to end users. With increasing demands for transmission over longer distances since grid deregulation in 1992, the old infrastructure is failing. One solution to more frequent power outages and delays is smart grid technology.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is the driving force behind the development of the smart grid. In 2007, Congress passed the Energy Independence and Security Act, which mandated a federal smart grid task force to be headed by DOE. It also provided for the establishment of federal funding for smart grid development.
Partnering with stakeholders in U.S. industry, state government and education, DOE is working on several of the priorities identified by the task force. These include facilitating self-recovery when power outages strike, developing protections against cyber attacks, incorporating alternative energy sources in the smart grid, and embracing new products and services.
Integrating computer-based automation and two-way communication into the grid improves accuracy and efficiency. Smart grid will automate many grid functions that have traditionally been performed manually by utility workers, such as reading meters. By forging direct connections between producers, regional utilities and utility customers, the smart grid will simplify many of the demand and supply issues that interfere with energy distribution.
Better connections distribute information more efficiently, giving utilities better access to critical information about their customers’ power needs. Consumers will be able to instantly see a real-time chart of their utility usage. They can also monitor and adjust power consumption using wireless smart monitors or smart appliance data.
Seeing where the electricity goes each month and tracking peak household utility demand makes it easier for households to conserve. Cutting back on energy consumption not only saves homeowners money but eases pressure on the electric grid.
With real time data and better connectivity, local utilities will be able to predict and prevent power outages. When demand for power spikes due to weather conditions or other causes, smart grid technology provides tools to prevent an outage crisis. One possible scenario is that the public utility could take the emergency action of remotely adjusting its customers’ thermostats by a degree or two. This would reduce demand and forestall a blackout.
A plan to integrate more energy from alternative sources is another way that smart grid developers are building versatility into the energy system of the future. At present, the overtaxed grid allows little access to alternative energy producers as it transmits conventionally generated power from coal, hydro and nuclear plants throughout North America. Not only is the current situation perpetuated by an entrenched system but also by too little transmission capacity. Solar and wind farms produce clean energy that they are able to store either on or off site until needed. However, expanded capacity, more precise logistics and opportunity must be in place before alternative energy sources claim their rightful place in the largest electric network on earth.
Fully developing smart grid technology will be the work of decades, but the evolution of new technology is essential to ensuring adequate power for all regions of North America. Many regional utility companies are already piloting smart grid strategies in preparation for major change. Consumers can help by volunteering to take part in smart grid trial programs and using available technologies, such as energy monitors and smart appliances, to track and cut down on electricity demand at home.
Laura Ginn enjoys researching into the different facets of the energy industry and takes a keen interest in the newest developments relating to smart energy technology. She also knows that she can find the cheapest gas and electricity in my area using uSwitch.com the UK’s leading online price comparison site. Image source