What Is The Smart Grid?

October 8, 2010

Power linesMany people think they know what the Smart Grid is. As I learned yesterday at a half-day seminar on the topic, there are as many definitions for the Smart Grid as there are potential users. Portland General Electric, the local utility company in Portland and Salem, Oregon, sponsored a look at the Smart Grid entitled, “A Smart Grid Perspective of Energy Efficiency, Renewables, and Demand Response.”

At the beginning of the seminar we learned that there are over 80 different definitions of the Smart Grid floating around. Even the Wikipedia definition is under dispute. We had to come up with some construct to talk about, and PGE offered what they considered the key characteristics:

  • “Enables active participation by consumers.
  • Accommodates all generation and storage options.
  • Enables new products, services, and markets.
  • Provides power quality for the digital economy.
  • Optimizes assets and operates more efficiently.
  • Anticipates and responds to system disturbances (self-heals).
  • Operates resiliently against attack and natural disaster.”

There are several features of the Smart Grid that are key to its operation and “smartness.”

  • Smart Meters – These are solid-state, communicate with the utility through radio, and send usage data regularly. Through these meters, the utility can also receive power outage notifications, maintenance requests, and other alerts.
  • Renewable Power Generators – Most people are familiar with these: photovoltaics (solar panels), windmills, fuel cells. The difference is that consumer-provided generators will become an active part of the grid and the utility system as a whole. The solar panel on your roof will eventually generate power for your neighbors.
  • Smart Appliances – One of the basic tennents of the Smart Grid is that consumers will be able to actively manage when they use electricity in direct response to varying costs. In other words, electricity at night will be cheaper than during the day, and consumers will be aware of this and can make educated choices about when they use their power. Appliances will be able to monitor power costs and program themselves to run when power is cheaper. If they have batteries to store power, such as electric cars, then they can actually draw power when it is the cheapest and feed the grid when demand is high.
  • Utility Data Management – With all the information utilities will be receiving from their new meters, they will be better prepared to respond to peak usage times and discover problems before they occur. The system can only produce what power can be used at any given time. Without large banks (or buildings full) of batteries, there is no way to store power that is generated and not used. Surprisingly, at some points in time, too much power is being generated and must essentially be thrown away. With better data, and more consumer generators and storage devices, the utility will have to generate less power, and can store the excess when it is not needed.

I admit that some of these ideas seem futuristic, but they will be coming into our lives in the not-so-distant future.

Thanks to Portland General Electric, Jeff Hammarlund, and Conrad Eustis for content provided in this article.

Photo courtesy of Horia Varlan through a Creative Commons License.


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Dawn Killough

has over 15 years experience in the construction industry and is the author of Green Building Design 101, an e-book available from Amazon. She is a LEED AP and Certified Green Building Advisor, and has worked on the LEED Certification of three projects in Salem, Oregon.
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