Friday, May 1, 2009

The Grid Is Getting Smart

If today's grid were smart, it would know a lot about you -- such as what time you awoke, which days you were away on vacation, whether you have a home office, how cool you like your home in the summer, and how often you forget to empty your clothes dryer at the end of its cycle.

Too sci-fi?

Well, you still have a few years to get used to the idea. Because the smart grid is coming, albeit the scenario painted above is still a decade or two away.

This year's economic stimulus bill included $4.5 billion for smart grid investments. That's just a "down payment," said a senior adviser to Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

As a down payment, it's minuscule. The Electric Power Research Institute estimates the total cost of a smart nationwide grid to be $165 billion.

Talk of smart meters and smart grids had been buzzing around since the 1980, but the Great Power Blackout of 2003 turned the buzz into a clamor. That was when scattershot notions of a national smart grid -- with self-healing networks and two-way communications between power generator and consumer -- began coalescing into a solid plan.

No longer were the people in charge of the nation's electricity content to let power lines simply carry a charge from one place to another. The smart grid would have smart sensors along the wires, together with smart meters, smart sockets and smart appliances -- all of which would talk to one another.

And reveal all kinds of secrets about your behavior.

If you're curious about life under a smart grid, listen to Val Peterson of Boulder, Colorado, America's first smart grid city:
"I pretty much get on my computer, tell my house and my car [a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle] what to do and then I walk away. My solar panels are talking to my house, are talking to my car, are talking to my house. It's a beautiful system."
Not so sci-fi now, is it?

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