Time to Get Smart About Smart Grids

Thu, 2011-06-23 14:39

Smart phones. Smart cars. Smart meters. Smart grids. It seems like every time we turn around the techno-giants have invented another world-changing smart technology.

Yet our country’s electricity is provided by an arcane, inefficient and decidedly “dumb” power grid that hasn’t changed since the dawn of electric power as we know it.

Recently, the Obama Administration announced a nine-point plan to implement the smart grid into American lives. We already have smart cars, smart meters, smart power monitoring apps and smart appliances. But without the increased flexibility of the smart grid, these things are unable to function at maximum capacity and efficiency.

This phased implementation of the smart grid will change the way we receive power and will help lead us down a more environmentally secure and stable future.

What The Heck Is A Smart Grid Anyway?
We have heard a lot alternative technologies’ dependence on the smart grid. But what exactly is the smart grid? In a nutshell, our current power grid facilitates a one-way flow of power. That is, power is generated at the power station and it flows through a series of power lines, transformers and wires into our homes and businesses. Power cannot flow from homes back to power plants or batteries.

Why does this matter?

The smart grid provides a two-way flow of power. Alternative technologies, like wind or solar power, are dependent on a blowing breeze or a shining sun. To provide uninterrupted power (even when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine) requires a storage mechanism such as a battery. The smart grid allows disparate locations of homes, businesses and scattered generation facilities to generate power and then feed this power back into the grid to store or to share with others. This two-way flow from generation source, to grid, to user and back again makes alternative technologies possible even when it’s dark, cloudy or windless.

Why Would I Want To Use Solar or Wind If It Requires All This Effort and Money?
Overhauling the entire electric grid and installing smart meters in a country the size of the United States is no small feat. It requires planning, tax incentives, government (federal, state and local) support, money and people.

Lots of people. People will be needed to fill lots of skilled trade jobs that cannot be outsourced. So regardless of your personal opinions on global warming, alternative energy or sustainability, it is undeniable that the construction of the smart grid brings America into the 21st century, puts us back on par with the rest of the developed world and creates thousands of jobs to heal our ailing economy. Furthermore, these jobs absolutely cannot be outsourced. They require on-site construction here in this country.

This increased demand for skilled workers serves as an important step in reviving the economy. Very little previous experience is necessary and continuing education institutions like Everblue (www.everblue.edu) provide job training and the necessary skills to take advantage of these jobs.

So What Is Obama Planning To Do?
The Obama Administration has already invested $4.5 billion in recovery investments to building the smart grid. These federal investments were matched by $5.5 billion in private spending. Over 5 million smart meters have already been installed and are ready to begin working with the smart grid.

To take advantage of this funding and add more incentives to implement the smart grid the Obama Administration is proposing nine projects.

  • Rural Loans: the administration is offering a minimum of $250 million in loans for smart grid projects in rural places in the U.S., as well as a potential $106 million in upgrades.
  • Grid 21 Non-Profit: this will focus on consumer-facing tools that allow people to reduce energy use and improve efficiency while maintaining privacy and security. Additionally, The Biggest Energy Saver contest will deliver ways for consumers to reduce energy, and also will have prizes for software developers that can create new tools.
  • Department of Energy Projects: including a crowd-sourced map to track progress of smart grid projects, a student competition around home energy efficiency, and an Energy Information Administration project on measuring energy efficiency progress.
  • Stakeholder Involvement: launching the website www.SmartGrid.gov will facilitate community involvement and information sharing of lessons learned from previous installments.
  • Renewable Energy Rapid Response Team: this efforts reviews clean power and transmission line projects and improves federal coordination for maximum rollout efficiency.
  • National Grid Security: The smart grid decreases terrorist threats to national security that might attack the electric grid by creating ways for grid operators to have access to information about threats to the grid, offering new tools and creating security standards.
  • Research and Development: A proposed Smart Grid Innovation Hub to serve as a collaboration effort between private and federal research efforts.
  • Testing New Technologies: a program through the DOE will facilitate high-risk testing of technologies through collaboration between private utilities and the military.
  • Modernizing The Grid: The administration released a report that focuses on four ways to help modernize the grid, including how to better align economic incentives that will spur smart grid technologies, how to focus on standards and interoperability to boost innovation, how to help empower consumers with energy tools, and how to increase grid security and resilience.

The Bottom Line
Implementing the smart grid is important for the future of the economic, environmental and national security arenas in the United States. It also creates thousands of jobs which the currently underemployed and unemployed may take advantage of. Through proper incentives, infrastructure improvement and federal, state, local and private collaboration this green future can become a reality.

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