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What the Hell is a smart grid?

April 16, 2009

This is the second post in our “What the Hell” series where we attempt to define terms that biologists and environmental policy wonks toss around without explanation.

Let’s start with the words. We all know what “smart” means (i.e., reading Mauka to Makai on a regular basis makes you smart), but the term “grid” is a little trickier. Folks at the U.S. Department of Energy think it only applies to the mish-mash of power lines and substations that make up what some call the largest machine on Earth. Others claim that the “grid” also includes futuristic storage technologies and smart meters that allow consumers to monitor how much juice they’re using in real-time.

Now, put the two words together and what do you get? Smart Grid! But that doesn’t really explain what a smart grid is and why it’s often touted as an environmentally-friendly solution to our energy problems. A smart grid is basically a national framework of new transmission lines that make swapping large chunks of electricity from one part of the country to another more reliable. With a smart grid, power companies would also be able to better monitor power transmission and distribution and even fix problems remotely. There, that wasn’t too bad. But how is that environmentally friendlier than the existing umm… dumb grid?

For one thing, a smart grid would be more efficient. Currently, power companies have to keep a lot of excess capacity at the ready in case there’s an unexpected spike in demand. Any excess power that they do produce gets dumped, since we’re not quite at the point where we can store electricity efficiently-apparently it’s more complicated that plugging the power plant into a really big lithium-ion battery. A smart grid would be able to digitally monitor supply and demand in real-time, and could adjust power supplies to homes and businesses in order to smooth out any spikes in demand. 

The digital monitoring would also allow people to get more involved with their electricity usage. Instead of walking outside to see whether your power meter is spinning quickly or slowly, you could monitor things with the touch of a button from inside your house. You could see how much energy you’re using, how much it’s costing you and how changing your behavior-turning off the lights when you leave the room and raising the temperature on your air conditioner-affects your bottom line. The smart meter could also tell you how much your electricity is costing at a particular time of the day, and you could decide whether it’s worth it to wait a few hours until electricity is cheaper before running your dishwasher. If we all used energy more efficiently, we could make do with the energy resources we already have.

Efficiency is one environmental step forward, but a smart grid would do better by helping us boost the proportion of our electricity that comes from renewable sources. The grid we have now was designed for a time when local power plants (typically coal-fired plants) provided electricity to the surrounding region. Long-distance transmission was designed to be used as a back-up that could sub in for a power plant if it shuts down or energy demand suddenly spiked. Now, most of the untapped sources of renewable energy (solar, wind and even wave energy) are located far away from large, power-hungry population centers. If we want to get the energy from solar panels in Arizona to the Empire State Building in New York, we’re gonna need long-distance transmission capabilities. A smart grid would give us these capabilities.

Few would argue that rethinking the design of the electrical grid is overdue-after all, the current design originated in the 19th Century, long before we had power-sucking appliances like computers and air conditioners. But we’re now able to make clean water out of anything (thanks to Dean Kaman)-it’s about time we got a better grid.

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