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Why it's important

Much of our energy distribution technology is state of the art 1880s technology. While nearly every other area has benefited from computing and internet technologies, the electrical grid is still operating on very old, very inefficient technology. The electrical grid must deal with delivering large amounts of high quality energy from a number of different sources to millions of homes with demands that change by the second. Currently, the idea is to make a lot of energy and have it be available to the end user whether they need it or not and to try to over the course of the day produce exactly the right amount of energy. We are asking things of the electrical grid that the original designers could never have imagined and that the grid was never designed to deal with. Below are some descriptors of things that this new smart grid will do better than the current grid.
The smart grid is less prone to breakdown

Increased Efficiency

The primary argument for smart grids is that they can lead to an increase in efficiency. Having information about supply and demand in real time eliminates waste. To meet a constantly varying demand, utilities must keep spare generating plants in standby mode, which is not only in itself expensive, but doubly so because these plants that are held in standby tend to be the least efficient plants. The last 10% of generating capacity available may only be used 1% of the time, but is still necessary to avoid brownouts and blackouts. These are also usually the most heavily polluting power plants. By having a better idea of what energy demands will be, less standby may be needed. In addition, having systems like real-time pricing and Demand Response (see below), could help to smooth out spikes in demand. Pacific Northwest National Laboratories estimates that the smart grid's potential to smooth out demand spikes could eliminate the need for $46 to $117 billion in power plant and power line investments in the next 20 years.

Smarter Consumers

Smart grid technologies will allow utilities to price energy (within reason of course) according to supply and demand. This already occurs in some areas, but is likely to be more precise, where those who use energy during high demand periods would likely pay a little more than they currently do, but those who are aware of these patterns can save money by running high energy equipment when demand is low. There is also the potential for something called Demand Response, where the utility company pays you to lower your demand as overall demand is increasing. This leads to a balancing out of the demand for energy, which is good for costs and emissions.
A smart grid will allow for better integration of renewable energy technologies such as wind power.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Less Prone to Breakdown

The smart grid is less prone to breakdown for two reasons. First off, it is designed with more redundancy, meaning that things are connected to each other in multiple ways, so there are many more paths to get from Point A to Point B. The second, and perhaps more important, way is that a smart grid is constantly checking its health and is able to predict failures and report them when they do occur. With the current system, a power company doesn't know there's been an outage until they start receiving calls. With a smart grid, each home is constantly telling the utility company about the state of its energy supply, so the company will know immediately if there has been an outage.

Better Integration of Renewables

A smart grid is better able to integrate both utility- and residential-scale renewable energy systems. On the utility side, it is able to take constantly varying outputs from remote areas and integrate it seamlessly into the grid. On the residential side, smart grids are able to tell the utility how much energy a home solar or wind system is producing, so that the energy company can reduce output by that amount. Right now, the utilities have no idea how much energy is being produced by individuals and so are not able to adjust their behavior as well as they could.

Integration of Plug-in Vehicles

Smart grids allow plug-in electric vehicles to become more than just big appliances that get plugged into your garage. With smart grid technology, the batteries on the vehicles can be charged over night when demand is low for a lower price. The energy stored in these vehicles could also be used to power essential parts of a home during a blackout or to ease spikes in demand by drawing some energy from the batteries and recharging them later. This would all help decrease emissions of the utility companies.

Up next: Where we are
PoliticalAffairs.net - Smart Grids
Interview with people from EarthTalk about the benefits of a smart grid.
Click now to view
Wikipedia - Smart Grid
Wikipedia article on smart grids
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EnergyPriorities.com
Importance of Smart Grid technology.
Click now to view
Wikipedia - Smart Grid
Wikipedia article on smart grids
Click now to view
Wikipedia - Smart Grid
Wikipedia article on smart grids
Click now to view
EnergyPriorities.com
Importance of Smart Grid technology.
Click now to view
PoliticalAffairs.net - Smart Grids
Interview with people from EarthTalk about the benefits of a smart grid.
Click now to view
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