Nowadays we have several issues to face that are causing concern to humanity in general and the western world specifically. I don’t think I need to repeat them here but basically they are environmental as well as geopolitical in nature. Hence, the old coal or oil burning power plant needs to be phased out and we must become much more efficient at generating and delivering electricity to end users or the costs become extraordinary over time.
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Everywhere I look these days I see Smart Grid this and Smart Grid that and Smart Grid everything else. Hmmm … must be either Green or something to do with a Bailout plan to be referred to so often in the press 🙁
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While I’m not an expert on the topic by any means but I do have a background in engineering and now as editor of this fine eMagazine I see a ton of relevant information cross my desk each day so I’d like to take a crack at sorting out the facts from the fiction on this topic. Once I put my foot in my mouth with this article please feel free to email your corrections and comments to me and I’ll add them to the bottom (unless of course you call me bad names).

I’ll start with a definition from Wikipedia.

A smart grid delivers electricity from suppliers to consumers using digital technology to save energy, reduce cost and increase reliability. Such a modernized electricity network is being promoted by many governments as a way of addressing energy independence or global warming issues. For example, if smart grid technologies made the United States grid 5% more efficient, it would equate to eliminating the fuel and greenhouse gas emissions from 53 million cars.

Now that is impressive … but still a bit vague about what the thing actually is and does. How about if I do the engineer thing and break this down into point form.

* The “Grid” as it is today.
* Why does it need to get “Smart”
* How do we make it “Smart”
* Who will make it “Smart”
* When will it become “Smart”
* What other stuff can a Smart Grid do?

The “Grid” as it is today

Let’s see if I can find a good picture of “The Grid” — OK here we go.

Source –

This is the basic simplified layout of the electrical grid as it existed before Alternative energy sources were added in recent years. Pretty simple stuff to understand really. Giant generating plant pumps electricity into a system of wires that transport it to homes and businesses. Need more power … just turn up the generator. The system is so huge that small fluctuations in local demand are mere pebbles dropped into the ocean so they don’t cause very big ripples at all. As you can imagine, turning up or down the power from a large generating plant is probably pretty inefficient and not too responsive to actual demand. But when oil, coal etc. was cheap … and we didn’t worry about pumping carbon into the atmosphere … the system worked just fine … although wasteful and ugly and polluting.

Why does it need to get “Smart”

Nowadays we have several issues to face that are causing concern to humanity in general and the western world specifically. I don’t think I need to repeat them here but basically they are environmental as well as geopolitical in nature. Hence, the old coal or oil burning power plant needs to be phased out and we must become much more efficient at generating and delivering electricity to end users or the costs become extraordinary over time.

The powers that be have decided to attack this problem on several fronts at once … which is a good thing … finally.

Obviously the first thing to consider … as we would with any engineering system … is efficiency. OK then, only so much can be achieved by making the big old power plants more efficient because they are just that … big old power plants.

Some efficiency can be gained along the way by improving transmission efficiency and presumably some of that is going on as we speak. Hopefully some of the infrastructure funding will be spent wisely in this area. Energy efficiency initiatives that reward consumers and businesses for reducing electricity and gas usage could result in utility bill savings of $168.6 billion, according to a report released by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE).

Rising prices for power tends to get the end users to improve efficiencies … but without having more information to base decisions on, it’s tough to really make a difference. So, what we need then is some way to monitor each individuals power use so they can see what is costing them more money … which then allows them to alter their behaviors if necessary.

The next partial solution to our energy problem is the addition of alternative energy sources such as solar, wind, tidal etc. Since these sources tend to depend on geographic location (i.e. tidal power needs to be at the ocean and solar panels need a sunny location to function) we need to be able to plug them into the existing grid so the electricity they generate can flow to the end users. Eventually we would like to be able to phase out those big old power plants completely and just use smaller, more efficient and earth friendly sources.

Although this sounds pretty simple in concept, there are some pretty basic problems that need to be addressed in order for it to work. Since most of these alternative energy sources are intermittant (i.e. the sun don’t shine at night) we need to have some way of keeping the amount of electricity in the wires equal to the amount we are using at any given time. To do that we need to be able to accurately track what everyone is using … and balance that with the power sources available.

How do we make it “Smart”

Enter the first element of a Smart Grid … namely the Smart Meter. This device will replace that old meter with all the spinning wheels that is currently only used to measure monthly use so the power company can send you a bill. Here’s what one looks like:

What makes these meters smart is that they can communicate electronically with a central system via the powerline or internet or perhaps another electronic network. That means that the power company can instantaneously know how much electricity you are using. That allows them to balance loads thus increasing the efficiency of the grid. It also allows them to charge you without sending out a meter reader by the way … which theoretically should save you some money. Not only that, power fees can be assesed based on time of day, low load periods etc.

Heres a few things a smart meter and network will allow ):

For the power company (info from GridPoint website):


Peak load management

Precise control over load management devices to offer superior demand response programs.
* In conjunction with distributed energy storage technologies and renewables, enables utilities to dispatch clean, efficient power into the electric grid during peak periods.

Basically they will be able to increase the efficiency of their existing operations and have the ability of adding intermittant (renewable) power generation

For the end user:

For industrial and commercial users, there are a multitude of energy saving opportunities made available with this technology. The ability to schedule non essential power usage to off peak hours for example can save energy and money.

Knowing how much energy you are using at any given time … and what it is costing you based on the time of day etc. gives you a means to cut costs if you wish by scheduling or cutting usage. With a smart meter and smart grid you will be able to see exactly what is happening at any given time. That should save energy and money too.
Who will make it “Smart”

The primary driver in the adoption of Smart Grids is of course the power companies. They will benefit the most by extending the life of their power plants and infrastructure and increasing the efficiency of their systems.

The government is on board and ready to provide funding for these projects. As we’ve all read lately … there is a worldwide movement in this direction … finally.

Many companies are jumping into the fray now that it appears that we have our backs to the wall and need to implement this stuff right away. They will be the ones that design the systems, build the equipment, finance the projects, install and monitor the equipment and systems. Along the way we need training and education too. Almost every segment of the economy can benefit from this movement.

At a recent convention (Retech 2009) I sat in on a presentation by Google no less … who already has plans to let everyone with a smart meter log into their service and see what their power use is. Have a look at to see what they are up to. This is good stuff.

When will it become “Smart”

It’s already happening around the country and I’m sure the push will be on for others to get this going as soon as possible. On the forefront is a company called Xcel Energy with their SmartGridCity project in Boulder Colorado. This advanced, integrated smart grid system – when fully implemented over the next few years – will provide customers with a portfolio of emerging technologies designed to provide environmental, financial and operational benefits.

Also, MEREGIO (Minimum Emissions Region), is a smart power grid project currently under development for pilot deployment in the Karlsruhe-Stuttgart region of southern Germany, one of the most densely populated areas of the country and widely considered Europe’s biggest manufacturing and high-tech hub. The objective of the project is to create an optimized and sustainable power network that reduces CO2 emissions to as close to zero as is technically feasible and humanly possible.

With the US government throwing $8.3B at the development of smart grids, I think there will be a great deal of activity in the next few years. It will obviously take some time to build smart grid projects around the world … but the desire and hopefully the investment funds are in place now so let’s hope that the snowball keeps rolling.

What other stuff can a Smart Grid do?

Coming as I do from a background of Home Technologies, I can tell you that being able to monitor energy is only one aspect of the smart grid vision … and in the end, that may not even be the driving force that gets smart meters installed in the majority of homes.

What if the power company could deliver entertainment and communications to your home via the smart grid so that you could get rid of the cable and telephone connections and just have one set of wires in the house. Plug appliances in and have them communicate with each other. Phone or surf to your home system and turn on the hot tub so it’s warm when you get home or turn off the lights you forgot. Plug in a set top box and have it connect to the internet so you can watch video on demand … or tune into you favorite TV network. Plug in a telephone and communicate with your friends just as though you were on a regular phone. Plug in your car and have it provide backup power to your house … or even sell the excess back to the power company.

This is not a daydream and I think you will agree that the Power Companies would find this scenario much more profitable in the long run than simply being able to increase the efficiency of their energy systems.

The HomePlug Alliance is one organization that has been working for years to make this dream a reality and they already have several member companies with products on the market that will do exactly what I’m talking about above.

In any case, the future looks bright for those companies that align themselves with the building and maintaining of the Smart Grid … not only in the US, but around the world. If it’s done right … the main beneficiaries will be you and I.

Please feel free to send me comments about this article and I will post them here.