(This article is the first in a series about the Smart Grid and Green Technology)

A cleaner energy economy is coming. 

On October 27th, President Obama announced that over $3.4 billion would be allocated through the Smart Grid Investment Grant to 100 projects that will help build a ‘smarter’ electric grid.  This stimulus money from the Recovery Act will be matched by industry contributions for a total investment of more than $8 billion – seed money for the colossal project of modernizing our nation’s entire electric grid while it is still running.

So why are we doing this?

The electric grid on which the U.S. currently operates is antiquated, ill-equipped to meet rising demands for energy and unable to carry energy from renewable sources. 

As our national population continues to rise, and as each individual in that population uses an exponential number of commodities requiring energy (think computers, cell phones, iPods, televisions, ATMs, cars, houses, planes), additional infrastructure must be built for the electric grid to accommodate all this, whether it is Smart or not.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) wrote in its report, “The Smart Grid: An Introduction”,

“Today, the irony is profound: In a society where technology reigns supreme, America is relying on a centrally planned and controlled infrastructure created largely before the age of microprocessors that limits our flexibility and puts us at risk on several critical fronts.”

According to the report, these fronts at risk include efficiency, reliability, security, environment/climate change and global competitiveness.  Most are in peril during blackouts, and three of the five massive blackouts over the past 40 years occurred during the last 9 years, denoting that our overburdened grid has begun to fail us more frequently.  The report stated that, “Outages and power quality issues are estimated to cost American business more than $100 billion on average each year.”  In other words, we have a problem. 

As the concern over global climate change and the consumption of nonrenewable resources mounts, more U.S. residents than ever before are placing their hopes for the future in renewable energy.  The current electric grid, however, cannot harness or transport the renewable energy necessary to abate these problems.  Robert F. Kennedy Jr. wrote in his forward for Van Jones’s The Green Collar Economy,

“The biggest renewable-energy opportunities—for instance, Southwest solar and Midwest wind—are outside the grids’ reach.  Furthermore, traveling via alternating-current (AC) lines, too much of that wind farmer’s energy would dissipate before it crossed the country…Even more important, we need to build in ‘smart’ features, including storage points and computerized management overlays, allowing the new grid to intelligently deploy the energy along the way.”

That last statement – the idea that a new electric grid is needed to intelligently deploy energy – makes the case that even if we were to ignore all environmental, social and economic concerns, it would still make sense to revitalize our century-old electric grid. 

What exactly will make the new electric grid ‘smart’? 

The new Smart Grid will be ‘intelligent’ in that (A) it will be able to prevent power outages by sensing when an overload might occur and then redirecting power; (B) it will have energy storage points; (C) it will be capable of integrating new technologies; (D) it will allow real-time communication between consumers and utilities so that consumers can modify their energy consumption; and (E) it will be able to independently respond to critical situations faster than humans could.  Overall, the Smart Grid will be able to meet the diverse goals of utilities, regulators and consumers.

The DOE identified the following areas in which the new Smart Grid would excel:

  1. Efficiency:  In their report, the DOE estimates that, “Smart Grid enhancements will ease congestion and increase utilization, sending 50% to 300% more electricity through existing energy corridors.”
  2. Reliability:  With its improved technology and its ability to predict, avoid and respond to problems, the new grid will be able to deliver the power quality needed with consistent reliability.
  3. Affordability:  The Smart Grid is potentially the most affordable option for restoring the electric grid because it requires little new infrastructure and saves more energy.  Utilities will spend less using more efficient systems and consumers will be better able to control their utility bills by responding to their real-time energy consumption information. 
  4. Security:  Increased decentralization and new security protocols will make the Smart Grid progressively resistant to attack and natural disasters.  Also, our national energy security will improve as we work towards decreased dependence on foreign energy sources, which are outside of our protection and control.
  5. Environment/Climate Change:  By being able to intake, store and transport energy from renewable sources (such as solar, wind, wave and geothermal), the Smart Grid will give our nation the ability to significantly lower its petroleum consumption and its greenhouse gas emissions.
  6. National Economy:  The Smart Grid will be fertile ground for innovation and entrepreneurship, which the DOE believes could spur a boon to the national economy just as the telephone and the internet have in the past. 
  7. Global Competitiveness:  Innovation in the renewable energy sector would boost our nation’s global competitiveness and would contribute to a cleaner energy economy.

What’s next?

Now that the federal government and many local utilities are on board, the Smart Grid is underway in locations across the U.S.  Look for upcoming articles in this Smart Grid and Green Technology series to find out more about how innovative companies are already plugging into the Smart Grid and about how we can help advance the Smart Grid from its current status to full implementation for a tide rise in nationwide profits, energy savings and greenhouse gas emissions reductions.