This may go down as the year when all the talk about creating a next-generation “smart grid” turned into action. The basic technology that transports electricity around the United States is more than a century old. So in October, spurred by concern over the cost and reliability of the present system, President Obama announced $3.4 billion of economic stimulus funds for smart grid projects and almost $5 billion more in private investment. “We’ve paid attention to individual components of the power system for so long, but now we have to look at the system itself,” says Dan Kammen, director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley.
These smart grid proposals would create a flexible, interactive relationship between energy producers and consumers. “The grid needs to evolve from one-way wires and cables to something where each power line would send power in either direction—to or from homes, businesses, or industry,” Kammen says. “We need the marriage of energy technology and information technology.”
The stimulus package will fund 100 projects nationwide, ranging from the installation of smart meters in homes so that customers can manage their energy use to the improvement of power substations and transformers. Utilities could monitor demand in real time and adjust supply accordingly. Customers could track their consumption and opt to buy more energy during off-peak hours, when it is cheaper and more plentiful. A grid that can store and redirect large quantities of power will also be crucial if the United States generates more than about one-fifth of its power from renewables such as wind or solar, which deliver an intermittent supply of electricity.
Ford announced in August that its planned plug-in hybrid vehicles would be able to communicate with a smart grid. The batteries in these vehicles could serve as backup storage, soaking up excess energy at night and giving it back when demand surges. “If we can monitor and understand what’s going on at all times, then we can reap the reward we want,” Kammen says. “And that is reliable, green power.”