Smart Grid Proof?

The vision of a smarter grid is of course a lovely thing to behold: an electric power system that’s much more interactive, interoperable, reliable, and robust—“self-healing,” even. That’s why so much excitement attended the news this time last year that the U.S. stimulus bill would contain billions of dollars in new funding to support smart grid construction, and the news six months later than the National Institute for Standards and Technology was issuing draft standards and a roadmap for completing standardization of the smart grid (the Framework and Roadmap for Smart Grid Interoperability Standards, issued in final form in January). And it's the reason too why such high expectations ride on the avalanche of smart meter installation projects launched in the last year.

But that excitement will turn to disappointment if the smart grid does not deliver, in addition to efficiency and reliability, energy conservation, less dependence on oil and gas imports, and lower greenhouse gas emissions from the electric power sector. As NIST put it in a press release last September announcing the draft standards and roadmap: “When completed, the Smart Grid will employ real-time, two-way digital information and communication technologies in the operation of the nation’s electric grid. The system would allow consumers to better manage and control their energy use and costs, reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil and create clean-energy jobs.”

We'll know the smart grid can deliver when in at least one situation in the United States, however restricted geographically or functionally, interactive communications have helped consumers reduce their energy use and cut their electricity bills. When will that be?

Not this year. There have been some interesting attempts to demonstrate the smart grid, notably in Boulder and Tallahassee, but just because such projects are small does not necessarily mean they're well designed and executed. (Right around the time IEEE magazine published a report on the Boulder experiment, most of the executives managing it were replaced, prompting us to wonder whether it might turn out to be like Michael Armstrong's introduction of the telephony triple-play at the old AT&T—brilliant in principle, but mistimed, and mismanaged.) It’s possible that the first proof of principle will come instead from one of the huge smart meter installation programs, say in California or Florida.

Of course there are smart grid projects directed strictly at efficiency and reliability, such as the MIdwest ISO’s installation of monitoring devices to test the power system's state 30 times a second, so that the system can run with smaller reserve capacity and greater ability to absorb intermittent generation like wind. That's all well and good. But citizens and consumers are not going to feel, broadly speaking, that the smart grid is a success unless they can see it helping them use energy better, both for their personal benefit and the common welfare.

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