The North American electrical grid is widely considered to be the world's largest machine as well as one the greatest technological achievements of the 20th century. But now this once magnificent grid is antiquated, out-of-date and incapable of meeting America's 21st century energy demands.
Last week, President Barack Obama announced plans for a stimulus grant worth $3 billion that aims to make the US electrical grid "smart". But besides from being an industry buzz word that simply gives a name to technology that will harness our increasing energy demands, how much does the average American know about smart grids? After all, it is them who will be the main beneficiary of the technology.
According to the DOE's National Energy Technology Laboratory, in order for our power grid to qualify as a smart grid, it must have the following characteristics:
The power to shut down consumers
Edison's grid was never equipped to handle variable power sources like wind solar, and was not built with the capacity to control electricity usage on the demand side. The beauty of a smart grid is it can shut down certain power consumers - or even tap into your plugged in plug-in vehicle's excess power - instead of firing up expensive power plants to meet excess demand.
Smart grids will dramatically increase energy efficiency, system reliability, and the amount of renewable energy plugged into the grid. And according to David Leeds, an analyst specializing in grid technology at Greentech Media, because electricity generation is the number-one contributor to greenhouse gases, smart grids may represent the "largest single IT investment that can be made to reduce CO2 (and other GHG) emissions."
Talking to the Infrastructurist.com, Leeds said that the government's stimulus grant were simply there to plant "seed money in a bad economy and then get out of the way."
US loses $150bn per year due to outages
He added, "the electric power industry has severely under-invested in infrastructure and IT in the last few decades.
"While we as a country have come to take this fundamental mission-critical infrastructure for granted, events such as the Northeast Blackout of 2003 serve as a powerful reminder of what's at stake."
The US currently loses $150 billion every year so although upgrading to grid will be hugely expensive, the long term benefits will be significant. And despite much of the future funding coming from the private sector, responsibility still lies with Washington to educate consumers on how they can use the technology and help it develop.
60 million smart meters contracted or proposed
It will be some time until smart grid technology becomes as ubiquitous as something like cell phone technology, but the growth of the two markets do share some similarities. As Leeds puts it, "one part of this is that the future of this business will-mark my words-not be in selling a commodity to the end customer, but rather in providing and marketing a bundle of services."
At present there are now 60 million smart meters either contracted or proposed to be deployed in the next five to seven years - that's nearly half the households in the US. Leeds expects it to be another five years before the population familiar with both the concept of smart grid, and using applications that sit on top of the technology. But it could be much longer before we are seeing the true benefits of it.
Image source: Infrastructurist.com
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