Americans talk a lot about smartness. We want smart children, smart pets, even smart cars and traffic systems.  And now a growing number of policymakers are calling for a “smart” electrical grid. Under the direction of Congress, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has started holding meetings (including one last week) to create a framework for a Smart Grid. NEMA was named in last year’s energy bill as a participant on this task force, and is now in the thick of the discussions, working with NIST and FERC as well as nonprofits such as EPRI and IEEE.

So what’s a “Smart Grid” and why would we need it? Simply put, the North American electrical grid is aging and in need of an overhaul. The grid is our electricity supply and distribution system, a remarkable process that starts at a power plant, sends rivers of electricity from transmission substations through high voltage transmission lines to power substations, and finally transmits a reduced electrical current to operate our lights, TVs, computers, traffic signals, and air conditioners. While we take this process for granted, the current grid has a growing number of problems that – if left untended – will lead to significant challenges for society down the road. For example, much of the infrastructure is aging and struggling to handle increased electricity demands. When grid problems occur – most notably in August 2003 and more recently in Florida this year – they’re not easily located and fixed. Moreover, sizable amounts of energy are lost in the transmission and distribution process – made all the more difficult because the present system is not capable of storing electricity.

A Smart Grid would alleviate most of these problems, creating a more reliable, flexible, and efficient delivery system. The basic concept is to add monitoring, analysis, control and communication capabilities to the electrical grid to increase capacity while reducing energy consumption. What will it look like? Utilities will be able to “talk” to electric meters in your home to control the use of electricity. Problems in the transmission and distribution will be easily located and “healed” remotely. New modes of power generation and storage options will be introduced to the grid.

Today Smart Grid falls under the radar of most Americans, but they’ll ultimately appreciate the work that a few dedicated groups are undertaking to ensure a more reliable, efficient future for electricity.


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