We've got smart phones, smart cars even smart pants. Why can't we have a smart electrical grid?
Well, we can -- we just need to get it built. And we need to get it built fast because we really, really need one. As Trace Dominguez explains in this DNews report, smart grid technology would save billions of dollars each year -- that's billions with a 'b' -- by making the process of energy distribution cheaper and more efficient.
The problem is that replacing the entire energy infrastructure of the U.S. and Canada is a rather massive undertaking. Our current grid is an impossible tangle of connections and ad-hoc solutions, lashed together in fits and starts since the 1890s.
As grids go, it's ridiculously big and profoundly dumb. The U.S. power grid provides around 830 gigawatts of electricity to more than 330 million people over 211,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines. But that power only flows one way, from generator to power station to your home, like an electricity firehose.
There's no mechanism for storing excess energy, so when you flip a light switch, the local power plant has to ramp up production just that tiny bit more. If something breaks along the way, the utility company has to go out and make manual repairs. Plus, around six percent of all power produced is lost in the lines themselves.
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A smart grid would solve a lot of these problems more or less instantly. The basic idea is to facilitate constant communication, via the internet, among all elements of the grid -- power plants, transformers, substations, transmission lines and individual homes. Computers would be able to move power around more efficiently by working around obstructions and properly navigating peak usage times. The smart grid would also allow traditional utilities to integrate with renewable energy systems both large and small.
That last part is critical. If your home has supplemental clean energy systems -- solar panels on the roof, say -- the smart grid would take this into account, further lowering your bills. If the power goes out in the neighborhood, the grid might even ask you to help out by shuttling your reserve power to traffic lights or emergency services.
On a larger scale, the smart grid would know to pull energy from wind farms on windy days, or solar arrays on sunny days. Consumers would also be given more options as to where they buy their energy. It's a win-win-win for companies, consumers and the environment.
Unfortunately, smart grid technology is also expensive and technically challenging to implement, which explains why it's taking a while. For more on how the power grid works, check out this video on the national tragedy that was the 2013 Super Bowl blackout.
-- Glenn McDonald
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Power-Technology.com: Upgrading the US power grid for the 21st century