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March 2, 2009

Does the smart grid make you feel dumb?

Posted: 03:27 PM ET

The latest buzzword on the energy forefront is “smart grid.”  You may have seen the GE commercial featuring a re-worked scarecrow from the “Wizard of Oz” touting smart-grid products that promise to save you money, help keep the world green and make pink bunnies grow like wildflowers in your yard (well maybe not – but they do promise a lot).

There was a House subcommittee hearing this week on this very subject. And an article today on

So what does it all mean?  The technology GE is promoting is basically two-way communication between your electronic appliances, the outlets and the power company.  This will allow you and them better control over how and when you use electricity.  And in theory, the more control you have, the more efficient you can be.

All of that is very cool, but it’s a long way away.  For one thing, our current power grid (the one that actually brings electricity to you from the power plant) isn’t really set up to transmit energy from alternative sources such as rural solar or wind farms to far-away population centers.

Our current system is built around centralized power plants delivering energy to nearby areas. What we need to take full advantage of wind and solar power is a whole new grid - a decentralized one that can move power easily from one place to another. 

That won’t come quickly, easily or cheaply.  It’s one of the more expensive parts of T. Boone Pickens’ plan, and many say it will take trillions of dollars and at least a decade to finish.  Oh yeah, and our national grid is actually made up of several grids loosely tied together and owned by privately held consortiums - so it will take an act of Congress to get this done.

So what next?  It seems our country is a bit adverse to paying for infrastructure; we know we need it, but it’s not a new and shiny gizmo waiting in our living room for us to play with.  For real progress to take place, we need to realize how important these improvements will be to our future.

Here’s a collection of links and articles I found interesting on this topic:

Smart grid

Outsmarting the Smart Grid

New York Times: Wind Energy Bumps Into Power Grid’s Limits

How to fix the grid

DOE’s grid page

DOE FAQ (who owns the power grid)

As always, I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on this matter.

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Filed under: Energy • environment

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Mark   March 2nd, 2009 4:00 pm ET

A smart grid would enhance productivity for all. I'd rather a smart grid that welfare.

Ron   March 2nd, 2009 4:44 pm ET

I doubt that we will see any "smart grids" any time soon. We haven't been able to even change our automobiles much over the past 30 years from a fuel consumption standpoint. This country can't do anything but bitch at each other's political party.

Robert   March 2nd, 2009 6:33 pm ET

The smartest grid we could come up with would be no grid at all. Individual power production using a combination of solar, battery, and efficient generator technology would drastically reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and completely eliminate our dependence on the "keepers of the grid" to take our trillions of dollars and waste them on studies. Plus everyone would pay for the power they use and realize how much they are using, because they made it.

xwindowsjunkie   March 2nd, 2009 7:02 pm ET

1) A smart grid is a good idea only if users were allowed opt-in or opt-out on each instance of power management. On top of that, there will have to be a "reward", otherwise rolling brown-outs will still occur.

2) Having experienced many power outages lasting more than a few days from hurricanes, a smart grid seems to be useful only when the entire system retains its integrity. How is that going to happen?

3) Cooperation with the communications vendors (phones and cable systems) is the only way a smart grid can happen. The problem is that power utilities and phone and cable companies live on different planets. Unless the federal government or the state government comes in and forces them to cooperate, it won't happen.

4) Distributed power with baseline power sourcing close to the use-point (AC generators, solar cell arrays with inverters etc) makes more sense from a reliability standpoint for the user. Waiting for power line repairs is infuriating.

5) Power Utilities can't effectively manage the systems they have running currently. How are we to believe they can do any better with "smart grid" technology? Especially when the definition of "smart" is still a monstrously huge unknown.

6) A smart grid that includes high tension lines from the wind and solar power farms to the rest of the US is only going to happen when the US government builds them, like the interstate highways begun in the 1950's. No power utility is going to have enough capital to do it or see any reason to do it unless they are the ones that own the power farms.

Jeff   March 2nd, 2009 8:34 pm ET

Oh, come ON. T. Boone Pickens’ plan is a ploy to acquire land for a natural gas pipeline that has been stymied. Does no one find it amazing that his wind corridor follows his proposed pipeline?

Andy L   March 2nd, 2009 10:11 pm ET

Smartgrid or not, the power grid needs to be upgraded. President Obama touted that 10% of America's energy will come from alternative sources by the end of his first term. However, the upgraded powergrid needed to implement this is nowhere to be seen.

Why didn't Congress allocate 100 billion towards an upgraded powergrid (what it was estimated to make an improved, more effective grid)? Instead we waste trillions on bailouts that get us nowhere.

Craig   March 2nd, 2009 10:31 pm ET

You said that "It seems our country is a bit adverse to paying for infrastructure", but our periodic investments in infrastructure are exactly what enabled our rise to world prominence. First was universal education, then a continent-spanning railroad, then an electrical grid (the current one), then a phone system, then an interstate highway system, then the Internet. And they are also precisely the reason we are in this mess; we developed each "infrastructure version 1.0" and everyone else learned from our mistakes and leap-frogged us to v.2.0. We now need Smart-Grid 3.0. And the next is Space Access, which is the real holy grail we desperately need. An investment in infrastructure changes the future development of society and our economy. It is absolutely fundamental.

Paula   March 2nd, 2009 11:18 pm ET

Like the Power Co. would go for this!-you'll see an increase in your monthly bill first! And they have us acclimated to that senario already....more increases $$ to come.

Franko   March 3rd, 2009 1:17 am ET

This is a must to improve National Security ?
Every electrical outlet and appliance, needs an internet address

Add smell sensors, to catch those hippies growing mariuana
Microphone to catch Pirated Mp3 listening
Security camera for improved identification
Mandatory spyware on your computer

All for your own good, to reduce your Carbon FoolPrint ?

oxbobend   March 3rd, 2009 10:55 am ET

I believe that we have our thinking backwards on this alternative energy growth. Instead of big mega solar or wind generation facilities, thus the big transmission lines to send the energy, we need to make individuals independant of power monopolies. If we would spread out our production of alternative energy in an individual sense, instead of the mega monopoly idea, we would take demand off of the existing transmission lines, thus making our existing transmission lines good into the future. I have lived off grid now for five years in a modern 4000 sq ft home. I have it all, dishwasher, trash compactor, hot tub. If you like paying big electric bills, keep thinking in terms of mega monopolies. If you like freedom and independence, then start thinking about becoming self-sufficient.

E. Ham   March 3rd, 2009 11:15 am ET

The major problem that needs to be solved stems from the fact that there is no known technology that allows for storage of massive amounts of electrical energy. The closest thing we have is the notion of hydro storage, that is, a dam holding water that can quickly be released through turbines when power is needed and shut off when power is not needed. One could envision a system where solar and wind generated power could be used to pump water from a lower storage basin into an upper storage basin when those sources were available and then release the water through turbines back to the lower basin when the solar and wind generation was not available.

It would not be as difficult as it sounds to implement such a system within a few years. The Hoover and Davis dams on the Colorado river already form a suitable upper and lower basin and they are located near an area of the country that is ideal for the placement of a large solar array generation facility. A solar array, less than a hundred miles of large pipe and a few electrically operated pumping stations and the thing is done.

Of course no one will attempt such a project because it is too simple to do–not enough whiz-bang technology to interest the techies.

PS. For a new out of the ground facility, you use the pipe between the upper and lower basins bi-directionally. The pump motors are used as generators and as motors, depending upon the direction of flow. The basins can be anywhere as long as there is enough vertical displacement between them to develop a usable head of water.

Mike   March 3rd, 2009 11:57 am ET

This is going to bump into the classic Edison vs. Tesla argument, with the Power Companies playing Edison’s role and saying “Where do we put the meter?” The Power Companies’ ideal solution would be for them to own the numerous solar and wind attachments on houses and apartments, as well as the infrastructure and the relatively fewer power plants required to meet peak demand, as they could continue charging tons of money (even more money, actually, since they could raise prices to “cover” the cost of infrastructure, which they’d probably use as an excuse to increase their profits as well). However, they know that the reality is that people will be buying wind and solar attachments (and who knows what else) on their own and generating more power if they’re providing the infrastructure changes necessary to allow it. Not only that, but those same people will be demanding that the power they generate (especially the unused power they generate) be reflected on their energy bills each month… which means less money for the power companies.

Unfortunately, it’s these same power companies that have to pay for the infrastructure upgrades. There’s no question in anyone’s mind of whether or not this is better for the population as a whole, but few companies are willing to accept less profit for something that only directly benefits someone else. Tesla’s idea (wireless power distribution… in the early 1900’s!) was good too, but inevitably against what the power companies considered to be their “best interests” (more profit). I’m not saying that the power companies are soulless … I’m just saying that the corporate mentality in general is designed to define “good” as profitable and “bad” as anything not profitable, with little regard as to whether or not those things are actually good or bad (as long as they’re legal… most of the time). So from a corporate standpoint, the full implementation of the Smart Grid is “bad”.

That said, this is definitely something we need, not just for the US and Europe, but for any densely populated area (most of Southeast Asia, for example). There are just too many people packed in our larger cities for us to continue supplying them all with power when that power is solely gained from sources far outside of those cities. As the cities grow in radius, it pushes the new power plants farther from the city center (because no one wants to live next to a coal plant, no matter how clean it is), which increases the power loss from transmission, as well as increasing the amount of land area you have that isn’t producing power. Unless we can get the city itself in on producing power, which can only be done realistically with clean energy sources (mini-wind generators, solar cells, unnamed future technologies), we won’t be able to reduce that power loss from transmission. There’s a lot of potential power generating real estate in the cities themselves when you start thinking about generating power a little a kilowatt at a time instead of a couple hundred megawatts at a time.

The problem is, that’s a problem for future Mike. Smart Grid technology isn’t really about solving the problems of today… the problems of today can be solved by building new plants. And while building new plants is incredibly expensive, it’s still less expensive than upgrading the infrastructure to a full Smart Grid, especially since that still keeps the Power Companies in control (and able to charge for) all the generated energy. And unfortunately, if history has taught us anything, it’s that humanity may look to the future, but they rarely ever work toward the future on a large scale. Problems for future Mike are problems that present Mike can solve, but problems for future humanity aren’t (unless present Mike happens to inherit a few trillion dollars). So while I can “do my part” by altering the wiring in my own house and installing wind/solar/future tech myself, it’s up to people with far more money than I’ll ever have to upgrade the wires going to and from my house to allow me to share my surplus with the rest of the world. And it’s questionable that they’ll ever do so, unless someone with lawmaking power tells them they have to.

wilson09   March 3rd, 2009 3:27 pm ET

I think the biggest issue will be the adption of the smartgrids. It has yet to become a popular idea, in what seems to be because everyone seems to think their idea is a better one, and also because of cost. Here is a great piece on the Communication Challenges of Green Energy

Adam   March 3rd, 2009 5:11 pm ET

Who are these people who claim the cost of a nationwide smart grid is in the trillions? I've never ever heard such a high figure cited. I'd like to see your sources, and more importantly, see you double check your sources.

Jon spear   March 4th, 2009 3:21 pm ET

what is this?

Franko   March 6th, 2009 11:10 pm ET

California Health Department final report on power frequency EMF
“This 7-year, $9 million study concludes EMFs can cause some degree of increased risk of childhood leukemia, adult brain cancer, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and miscarriage. The Evaluation further concludes that magnetic fields may cause suicide and adult leukemia.” -

nice   March 10th, 2009 4:44 pm ET

YaY, I can talk to my toaster, through the "Smart Grid"!!!!


"Make me toast. NOW"


Franko   March 11th, 2009 5:22 pm ET

Not just toast from a slice of bread
But, the Internatioal Globalized smart Grid, will know everything
Able to project force, zap anyone, the Untimate Power of the Greenie Revolution

Anxiety Depression    October 13th, 2010 4:26 pm ET

wind generators are not very efficient but they are clean sources of energy-';

Tessie Maxham   June 25th, 2013 11:05 am ET

The medical terminology applied to women’s experiences during early pregnancy has changed over time.“Miscarriage” or “early pregnancy loss” are currently used to describe the end of a pregnancy at a gestational stage before the fetus is considered viable. `"^^

My favorite web portal

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