Our electrical grids are outdated, inefficient relics of a bygone era. Compared to the technology currently available, this aging collection or 20th century wires and power stations are veritable dinosaurs. As our power consumption grows, these old giants are subject to increasing amounts of strain. Time for the grid to adapt and throw off the scales for some fur, warm blood, and a larger brain. Time to get smart!
So, what is a smart grid exactly, and what makes it preferable to the way we operate now?
Smart grids are systems that use two-way communication to deliver energy from suppliers to consumers. Power companies use digital signals to monitor overall electrical use and control appliances via your home’s meter by turning them down or off during peak hours to reduce demand and avoid blackouts.
Smart appliances constantly send information back to the grid, allowing a detailed, real-time picture of electricity use. This helps companies to generate only what is required, and helps diminish the need for maintaining expensive and inefficient backup “peaker plant” generators. Many of these backups are kept online around the clock, regardless of whether the electricity they create is used or not.
This excess energy cannot be stored and so the money, time and resources utilized to generate the electricity is eventually wasted. This in turn affects the price of power as well as the amount of pollution expelled in the process of energy production. About half of our electricity is made by burning coal, a major contributor to greenhouse gasses and particulates in the atmosphere. With half of that directly generated electricity lost during transmission, a smart grid tailored to demand would greatly increase efficiency, diminish our carbon footprint and improve the quality of our air.
In addition to keeping tabs on supply and demand, smart grids also allow companies to oversee the health of the infrastructure and prevent catastrophic blackouts caused by aging power lines. In 2003, a downed line in New York sparked a fire damaging a key point in electrical transmission. Millions of people across the East Coast and parts of Canada lost power. New sensors placed directly on the line can evaluate the condition of the line and alert technicians before problems arise by sending out wireless signals.
While retrofitting millions of buildings, 5,000 power plants and more than 100,000 miles of transmission lines may seem like a colossal undertaking, we must remember that projects of this scale have been undertaken before. The original grid was constructed during the Depression when the federal government instituted programs to bring electricity into the homes of millions of Americans and put people back to work.
Public projects and government incentives may not only serve to save money in the long run with more intelligently run power networks, but also help to jumpstart a flagging economy by providing employment through systemic overhaul. Productive, cost-effective and job-creating? Sounds like a pretty smart idea!