You hear it in national political speeches. You hear it in ads on TV. The term ï¿½smart gridï¿½ covers a lot of different ideas about the network of power lines that deliver our electricity.
Some of those ideas will be carried out behind the scenes, affecting how power plant operators and other utility personnel do their jobs.
Other changes will involve consumers.
Thatï¿½s why itï¿½s often difficult to pin down a short, simple definition of the smart grid. Itï¿½s a catch-all term for a major overhaul of the power grid we have now.
Hereï¿½s a snapshot of the smart grid of the future: lots of tiny sensors and switches along wires and on appliances, monitoring the flow of electricity and sending that information through power lines or the Internet, to machines or people so they can put power to its most efficient use.
All this gadgetry, with its ï¿½gee whiz, isnï¿½t this coolï¿½ sizzle, works great in advertising campaigns. Whether it will work in real life may take a long time to discover.
Consumers whoï¿½re comfortable with the latest electronic gadgetsï¿½and enjoy tweaking them throughout the dayï¿½can already buy specialty products to install at home. These electronics use the Internet and cell phones to send instructions to appliances such as washing machines or to turn lights off or on.
Small test programs and demonstrations of more complex consumer control systems are under way in selected parts of the country. Several companies offer things such as in-home displays of how much electricity every appliance is using at any particular minute.
These fancy new high-tech choices are all part of the push toward making the nationï¿½s electricity grid more responsive to individual consumersï¿½ needs and goals. But thatï¿½s just one part of a much more far-reaching plan.
Experts intend for these new physical features of the smart grid to work together to:
Improve reliability of electric service
Help reduce environmental impacts
Lower monthly electric bills
If these items sound familiar, thatï¿½s because the nationï¿½s electric co-ops have been actively working to achieve these goals for many years already.
One of the first steps toward a smart grid came in 2000, when electric cooperatives introduced a new way for utility company computers to talk to each other.
At that time, many computer programs used in the utility industry were written in languages other computers couldnï¿½t understand. Then the National Rural Electric Cooperative Associationï¿½s MultiSpeak initiative introduced standards and procedures for information technology that made it possible for information in many different computer languages to work together.
That common language was an early step to a smarter electric grid. For example, data about the geographic locations of poles and transformers could now be combined with customer information systems to help with normal daily operations and outage restoration efforts.
Co-ops are also demonstrating how innovative electric meters can help make the grid smarter.
In many co-opsï¿½ service territories, installing automatic meter reading devices is an important step toward more efficient operations. These meters can send information about electricity use back to the utility on a continuous basis without the need for a human to go to the location to read and report numbers. That means less money spent on trucks, fuel, and salaries for meter readers.
With the help of MultiSpeak, many co-ops have taken an important second step. Advanced metering infrastructure links automated meters with maintenance and outage management systems. That gives system operators new tools to visualize whatï¿½s happening with the flow of electricity through the grid. Nationally, about half of all electric co-ops have some elements of an advanced metering infrastructure already in operation.
Electric meters that report their own numbers, computers that can talk to each other, and improved power management systems such as SimpleSaver (see the companion story below) are big steps toward a smarter power grid.
Other features will be needed to make the nationï¿½s electric grid superefficient. One of the most difficult parts of implementing a smart grid could be persuading people to change their energy habits. For example, running a dishwasher late at night, when fewer people are using electricity, could make for a more efficient electric grid.
Today, there is a big gap between what happens with electricity during the day and night. In many areas of the country, generating plants are operating at full capacity during certain hours, then sit idle during other hours. Power plants cost a lot of money to build, and itï¿½s not smart to use them only part of the time.
One solution to these problems is to convince electricity consumers that there are benefits to changing their electricity use so itï¿½s spread out more evenly during each 24-hour period. Starting dishwashers at midnight or learning to use ovens early in the morning instead of during the hottest hours of the afternoon is another.
That sort of time shifting might do more than just improve efficiency. It could also prevent interruptions to reliable service caused by an overcrowded electric grid. In many parts of the country, during certain hours transmission lines are carrying so much electricity they sometimes become congestedï¿½just like highways do during rush hour.
Grid congestion might get worse if deï¿½ï¿½ï¿½mand for electricity increases substantially.
Len Peters, Kentuckyï¿½s Energy and Environment Cabinet Secretary, says, ï¿½President Obamaï¿½s goal is to have 1 million plug-in electric vehicles in use by the year 2015. That will have a big impact on electricity use.ï¿½ To avoid overloading the electric grid, the majority of those vehicles will need to be re-charged during non-peak hours.
Many smart grid proposals go far beyond telling electricity users about how the grid works. Instead of relying on a consumerï¿½s desire to simply ï¿½do the right thing,ï¿½ these proposals include elaborate methods to reward certain choices with cheaper prices for electricity used during those times.
Known as ï¿½prices to devices,ï¿½ this feature of a smart grid would use the Internet, cell phones, computer screens, microchips, and radio waves to give individual consumers information about the minute-by-minute cost of electricityï¿½and the ability to make decisions based on that information. Clever consumers could manage their electricity use by setting up certain rules for their household, such as ï¿½turn off appliance A when electricity costs 30 centsï¿½ or ï¿½turn on appliance B only when electricity costs less than 15 cents.ï¿½
Secretary Peters says, ï¿½Consumers are going to have to get much more knowledgeable about how they use electricity. This is going to be a significant change in behavior. A smart grid will empower them to make decisions to reduce their electricity bills.ï¿½
STARTING THE SMART GRID IN KENTUCKY
A section of the electric grid in Madison County got a lot smarter this spring: 136 households in Clark Energy Cooperativeï¿½s service territory signed up for SimpleSaver, a high-tech way to help manage demand for electricity.
A key feature of this voluntary plan involves radio-controlled switches that use paging signal technology as a form of remote control. A switch can be installed on a 40-gallon or higher capacity electric water heater, or on a central air-conditioning unit.
East Kentucky Power Cooperative, which generates electricity and transmits it to substations in 87 counties for 16 local distribution co-ops, operates the switches. The switch allows the electric utility to cycle the water heater or air conditioner off during brief periods when demand for power is at its highest. That reduces the load on the electric gridï¿½and can help prevent problems, such as brownouts and blackouts, within the grid.
David Duvall, vice president for member services at Clark Energy, says, ï¿½Working together with EKPC, we looked at substations within our service territory to figure out where we have the heaviest loads during the summer months.ï¿½
An area in Madison County with historically high demand for electricity became the first zone, with areas served by two substations in Powell County chosen as the most likely locations for the next phase for the SimpleSaver plan. All 16 East Kentucky Power member co-ops are gradually introducing the plan to their members in selected areas.
Working with local co-ops, EKPC hopes to enroll 50,000 air-conditioning units and 27,000 water heaters in the SimpleSaver program throughout the territories of its member co-ops during the next five years. Such widespread use of remote-controlled switches to manage the amount of electricity needed at any particular minute during peak times could be really smartï¿½it could mean that fewer new power plants would need to be built, and it could save millions of dollars for co-op members.
Next month: Designer energy prices for greater efficiency