Imagine being able to take an instant-by-instant look at your energy usage, set a monthly energy budget and get an alert when you get close to that figure, remotely shut off appliances like air conditioners during times of peak energy demand, or sell the excess energy generated by your solar panels or wind turbine back to the power company. And if you plan to purchase a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle to avoid the pain at the pump, you could use the car’s battery pack to deliver power back to the grid when demand is high or to run your house in the event of a blackout. These were among the selling points that got residents of Boulder, Colo., enthused about their city becoming the test bed for the coordinated introduction of a group of technologies that will make Boulder the first city in the United States to be powered by a so-called smart grid when the two-year project is completed in December 2009.

The effort is the brainchild of Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy, an energy utility whose service territory covers eight midwestern U.S. states. What’s in it for Xcel? In the wake of the 2003 blackout that left a large swath of the United States and Canada in the dark, there was a renewed call for improvement in the outdated, poorly configured patchwork that is the U.S. power grid. Electric utilities and power pools have been under pressure to improve the networks’ infrastructure, including long-distance transmission lines and the control systems at substations. Advances in the form of new materials for cables, sensors and software designed to detect and even predict faults, and the ability to incorporate inputs from residential solar and wind generation are gradually being installed.

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Practical Power Beaming Gets Real

A century later, Nikola Tesla’s dream comes true

8 min read
This nighttime outdoor image, with city lights in the background, shows a narrow beam of light shining on a circular receiver that is positioned on the top of a pole.

A power-beaming system developed by PowerLight Technologies conveyed hundreds of watts of power during a 2019 demonstration at the Port of Seattle.

PowerLight Technologies

Wires have a lot going for them when it comes to moving electric power around, but they have their drawbacks too. Who, after all, hasn’t tired of having to plug in and unplug their phone and other rechargeable gizmos? It’s a nuisance.

Wires also challenge electric utilities: These companies must take pains to boost the voltage they apply to their transmission cables to very high values to avoid dissipating most of the power along the way. And when it comes to powering public transportation, including electric trains and trams, wires need to be used in tandem with rolling or sliding contacts, which are troublesome to maintain, can spark, and in some settings will generate problematic contaminants.

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