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Wise Up About the Smart Grid

Big changes are coming to an electric meter near you. Will it benefit everyone?

SOCIAL CHANGE environment

— Rob Bartee/Monsoon/Photolibrary/Corbis

August 2020

It’s the wee hours of the morning on a late summer day predicted to break 100 degrees. Strong gusts rush over the hills to the west, spinning giant turbines in a wind farm to maximum rpm. With a literal windfall of power pouring into the electric grid, a coal-fired generating plant in the network reduces output. Automatically, information runs through transmission lines, and your new “smart” refrigerator — in need of an energy-consuming defrost cycle — picks up the signal wirelessly. It decides to defrost now while demand is low and electricity is unusually cheap.

Later, before leaving for work, you glance as usual at your home energy settings on your laptop. The electric company expects heavy load on the system today, and is asking to remotely raise your thermostat and turn down the water heater this afternoon. You agree conditionally. Your high-school-age children will be at sports practice then, but you’ll need the full arctic blast in effect by 7 p.m., when a group of old friends comes over for dinner.

Late afternoon, as you march through the workday, your plug-in hybrid car is doing its own business parked in the company garage. It discharges unneeded battery power into the grid at the peak of demand. Since you charged your car overnight, you’re selling at a far higher price than you paid. It’s not big money, but it’s nice on those rare occasions you can stick it to the electric company, rather than vice versa.

Building a smart grid

That’s a picture of how things could be for some of us in 10 years. Currently, of course, our nation’s electric grid — a sprawling patchwork of power plants, transmission lines and distribution networks with technological roots in the days of Thomas Edison — bears little resemblance to the hypothetical future “smart grid.”

Called “the largest interconnected machine on Earth” in a recent U.S. Department of Energy report, the grid usually remains in the background as it lights our homes and offices and powers our appliances and gadgets. If we ever give it a second thought, it’s once a month at bill-paying time.

But America’s arms-length relationship to the grid is about to change. Utilities nationwide, with strong government encouragement and funding, are pressing ahead with modernizations that will add sophisticated communications and IT capabilities to the grid in hope of increasing energy efficiency and preventing blackouts.

“The investment we are making today will create a newer, smarter electric grid that will allow for the broader use of alternative energy,” President Obama declared last year as he signed into law the 2009 economic stimulus bill, which contained $4.5 billion for smart grid investment. “This investment will … make our energy bills lower, make outages less likely and make it easier to use clean energy.”

Whether it finally lives up to its billing or not, the coming of smart grid seems certain to dramatically change the way we get our electricity. And it should all begin happening relatively quickly, said the lead government official overseeing smart grid standards development.

“We have about 140 million residential meters in the country, and over the next five years, we expect up to 50 million of them will be upgraded to smart meters,” said George Arnold, National Coordinator of Smart Grid Interoperability at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

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