Anyone driving to and from work last week and listening to NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" got a fascinating education on Smart Grid. The 10-part series, called "Power Hungry: Reinventing the U.S. Electrical Grid" (and available for reading or downloading on the NPR website), explained what Smart Grid is, why we need it — and why it's so hard to build quickly. As one interviewee stated, "Smart Grid is like taking us from the rotary dial phone to the iPhone overnight."
Here's a very brief review of the series:
In Part 1, called "An Aged Electric Grid Looks to a Brighter Future," the authors note that not much has changed in electricity "since Thomas Edison fired up the first commercial power grid" in 1882. Except perhaps about 300 million more users. Considering the new opportunities and challenges — such as getting alternative energy sources on line and maintaining enough power on a hot summer day — the current jerry-rigged grid will need an overhaul if it's to become more efficient, more effective, and more secure.
Part 2's "A Green Challenge: Make Renewables Reliable" talks about how renewable energy sources like wind and solar will need new energy storage technologies to ensure a steady stream of power. These storage technologies will, at the same time, allow utilities to draw power back from the community when they need it — conserving energy and saving consumers money.
Part 3 ("Building Power Lines Creates a Web of Problems") addresses the ongoing political challenge — from environmentalists and organized community activists — of placing new transmission lines in multiple states across the country.
Part 4 takes a look at how "Smart Meter Saves Big Bucks for Pennsylvania Family," including how advanced meters and software allow consumers to manage their energy usage online.
Part 5, "The Challenge: Constant Current from Fickle Winds," takes a closer look at the pros and cons of using wind energy to power up our homes and cities. Not only is the wind fickle (see Part 2 for how this can be resolved), but often the wind blows hardest far away where the electricity is most needed — say, on the ocean or in the panhandle of Texas.
Part 6 explores the question of "The Grid May Be Smart, but Will It Also Be Green?".
Part 7's look at "Power Industry Sees New Phase in Energy Use" discusses how utilities, traditionally conservative in their outlook, face great opportunities but large financial challenges in overhauling the electrical grid.
Part 8 ("Young Workers Find Opportunity in the Power Industry") and Part 9 ("Could Energy Innovation Create a 'Green Bubble'?") explore some of the upsides and downsides that Smart Grid brings to the U.S. economy.
Finally, Part 10 takes a look at how "New Grid May Be Needed, But So Is Smarter Use." That is, while Smart Grid will inevitably help Americans reduce their energy consumption, it will require smarter use — through High Performance Buildings, for example — to take complete advantage of the opportunities for energy savings.