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Smart grid, part 2: the technology

The trouble with writing about the smart grid is that the news is moving so fast. Witness:

* Obama just announced plans to modernize 3,000 miles of transmission lines and install smart meters in 40 million homes.
* Cisco just launched EnergyWise, a software suite that brings internet-like capabilities to energy management services.
* A few weeks ago, the Department of Energy snuck out a detailed report on the dismal state of our current grid and the opportunities and obstacles involved in upgrading it.

But this is all getting ahead of things. Round 1 of this series looked at why we need a smart grid. Round 2 will try to briefly answer the question, what is a smart grid? This question is a bit trickier to answer than you might think, much as the question “What is the internet?” is a bit more slippery than it first appears. Let’s let Tyler Hamilton take a crack at it:

> The true vision of the smart grid is a self-healing, automated grid that can manage complex flows of electrons, from the hundreds — potentially thousands — of large and small sources of power to the millions of homes, businesses, industrial customers and, potentially, electric cars that require that energy.

Sounds good. The Department of Energy breaks this down a lot further, laying out no fewer than 60 specific technologies that fall under the smart grid label (big pdf). These can be loosely grouped into six intersecting categories:

* One set of technologies — smart meters, programmable thermostats, home automation software, etc. — allows consumers to participate in the smart grid by adjusting their electricity use automatically based on fluctuations in electricity availability or rates.
* The most desperately needed part of the smart grid are the transmission lines and control software that tie together far-flung renewable energy sources (such as wind and solar) and energy storage devices (such as electric car batteries). Unlike the present crazy quilt system, a true smart grid will be able to move electricity from wherever its being generated to wherever its needed — potentially thousands of miles away — in real time, even parking it in storage for use later if necessary.
* The smart grid is a communications network, moving information about grid performance, electricity demand and availability, rate information, etc. from point to point.
* The smart grid is an application platform. Just as the internet allowed services like to spring into existence, the smart grid will allow a host of innovative energy management applications from third parties to be deployed on the network.
* The smart grid is a set of monitors and automated control mechanisms that respond quickly to service interruptions — whether from natural disasters or purposeful attack — in a self-healing manner.

Taken together, these features of a smart grid will facilitate both clean energy and energy efficiency, all while providing more reliable service.

At least, that’s the hope. A large number of companies, from start-ups to industry giants like IBM, are working feverishly to make it a reality.

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