Smart grid: Revolutionizing our energy future

  • What is a smart grid?

    What is a smart grid?A "smart" electric grid allows homes and businesses to use, as well as produce and sell, electricity in a more technologically advanced way. Let’s see how this might play out over the course of a day for a homeowner connected to the smart grid.Carol Zuber-Mallison

  • Not your average solar panels

    Not your average solar panelsEarly in the morning, your solar panels have checked the weather to calculate how much energy they’ll need. They’ve told the dishwasher that the sun is shining so it can kick on. When a cloud passes, the panels tell it to pause. AtominumeroUNO / Shutterstock Images

  • Puts your smartphone to work

    Puts your smartphone to workWhoops! You’ve headed to work, but forget to program your water heater to shut down since no hot water heater is needed when the house is empty. That’s OK – you can use your smart phone to reprogram the water heater from your office. Julia Robinson

  • You can sell your surplus power

    You can sell your surplus powerAs temperatures and electricity demand climb during the afternoon – at times of peak demand – your solar panels sell extra electricity back to the electric provider for a premium.iStock

  • Avoiding peak usage (and peak costs)

    Avoiding peak usage (and peak costs)Meanwhile grid managers might cut a deal with your freezer: They pay it (and other freezers in town) to postpone defrosting. That helps the grid meet peak demand spikes without cranking up a fossil fuel power plant. Julia Robinson

  • Your car can be part of the grid, too

    Your car can be part of the grid, tooYour electric car knows when there’s extra solar or wind power, and that’s when it recharges itself. Your car also knows when your house needs power, and can send extra electricity from its battery to other electricity demands.John Rae

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Our phones are getting smarter, and so are our cars, appliances and homes. Now it’s time for the electric grid to smarten up, too.

The electric grid is the vast network of transmission lines, substations and power plants that deliver electric power to our homes and business. It is one of the great engineering feats of the 20th century, and includes more than 9,000 generating plants and around 300,000 miles of transmission lines in the U.S.

Seven percent of the power we generate is lost in transmission and distribution. Many power plants, often the dirtiest, least efficient, and most expensive are used only to generate power several dozen hours per year as they are specifically designed to meet peak energy demand. These so-called "peaker plants" cost families money and emit unnecessary pollution from power plants.

Thankfully, the smart grid is a newer, more efficient and cleaner version of our current electric grid system, which is wasteful, expensive and a huge source of pollution.

What is a smart grid?

Since 1882, when Thomas Edison switched on the world’s first commercial generator in New York City, the electric grid has been a one-way path from power plants to consumers. A smart grid allows for a two-way street, adding computer intelligence and communications to the electricity distribution network and much of what’s connected to it, from solar panels … to smart appliances … to plug-in cars. It holds great promise for cleaner, more efficient power, healthier air and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Houses and offices on the smart grid are in constant communication with the grid to devise the cheapest, most efficient way to operate.

Digital smart meters that provide real-time electricity data replace the old meters with the spinning disks, and consumers can track their energy use by smart phones or computers.

Sound like science fiction? Actually, EDF is playing a leading role in a smart grid initiative that is already under development in the Mueller neighborhood of Austin, TX. Pecan Street Inc. is a community-wide collaboration that aims to reduce the Mueller’s carbon emissions by 64% compared to other Austin neighborhoods.

Goal: Net zero carbon emissions

For houses equipped with solar panels, the goal is for them to consume no more energy than they produce, and to produce net zero carbon emissions.

In the words of Brewster McCracken, Pecan Street’s executive director, "We are going to revolutionize how energy is produced, transported, and consumed in America."

Smart grid efforts are also underway in North Carolina with Envision Charlotte, where EDF serves on the Board, in San Diego, with EDF backing, and in the service territories of Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric, among others.

The time for the smart grid is now

New investments are coming: An estimated $1.5 trillion will be spent upgrading our electric grid infrastructure over the next 25 years. But how should it be spent—building ever larger versions of Edison’s machine?

That would require many additional power plants, and many will sit idle 95%—or more—of the year, cranking up for just those 100 hours or so when everyone runs their air conditioners full blast. But idling plants waste money and energy, while emitting vast amount of air pollution and greenhouse gases.

The alternative is building a smart, "green" grid that maximizes efficiency and reduces waste.

"This country is going to spend a ton of money upgrading the grid," says Jim Marston, EDF vice president for energy. "The question is whether we just replace the old system or create a new one open to innovative, clean technologies."


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