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How Smart Can You and Your Local Electricity Grid Get?

Xcel Energy's small-town test of smart-distribution and home-monitoring technology may set the stage for much bigger things.

9 min read
How Smart Can You and Your Local Electricity Grid Get?

The potential benefits are obvious: Install all kinds of monitoring equipment in personal residences, at small-business establishments, and out on the poles in the streets so that both providers and consumers know just how much electricity is being used at any given time to do what, and everybody stands to gain. Customers who have a better idea of how they’re using electricity and what they’re paying for it will consume it much more judiciously. The electricity provider, with much the same information plus still more coming from the distribution network, will be able to see problems coming and fix them more quickly and economically, before they start compounding and cascading. The provider, what's more, will have tools to influence consumer behavior so that all users of the grid become cooperative partners in making the electric power system more reliable and robust.

If it all comes out right, the overall efficiency of the power distribution system will be significantly improved, so that long-term investment in new generation can be reduced. Instead of having to add big new base-load plants that typically run on coal or natural gas, energy companies will have the option of building smaller wind farms or gas peaking plants instead.

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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