National Power Grid That Thinks
Key to 'smart,' secure electricity of the future may be educating consumers
Several years ago, the
But while it may have been a technical wonder at the time of construction, the nation's power grid has become dangerously antiquated over the past few decades. If technology in the home is racing ahead at broadband speed, the power grid is stuck back in the days of rotary-dial phones. According to industry statistics, the dog food industry spends more on research and development than the electrical sector does. Aging technology means more frequent blackouts, a greater vulnerability to computer hackers, and, perhaps most insidious, colossal inefficiency. As part of the economic stimulus package, the Obama administration has pledged
Better bulbs. There are several basic components of a smart grid. Two-way movement of power is critical. Conventionally, power plants simply send electricity to homes. In a smart system, homes equipped with solar panels or wind turbines would be able to push power into the grid as well. Such a system also would be more stable and able to repair itself in the event of a blackout or other disruption. "In the more distant future, smart power grids may be able to coordinate the use of electricity in the home -- for instance, turning on an appliance like a washing machine at a time of day when there is ample power on the grid and electrical prices are low," says
But the most important near-term reason to smarten the grid is waste reduction. Cutting tiny inefficiencies can have dramatic effects on the entire system. Consider the case of the humble incandescent light bulb. By the time power has been generated at a plant, transported across high-tension lines, and sent to the lighting fixture, a measly 0.8 percent of the power is converted into light. More efficient light bulbs, like light-emitting diodes, could vastly alter that equation. Widely adopting LEDs in the next two decades could save
Most Americans are completely unaware of how much power common household items like the light bulb fritter away.
So smartening the public is as critical as smartening the grid itself. Individual smart meters that replace the traditional power meters installed on homes can show consumers how much power their home is using at given times of the day and how much that power is costing. Indeed, policymakers and utilities hope that giving people the true costs of their electric appliance use will naturally change their behavior and give them an incentive to make cheaper choices.
To that end, the Internet search giant
Mischief-makers. Hooking more computers into the power grid brings with it the possibility of greater efficiency and stability, but it also creates more points of vulnerability for those seeking to make mischief. Some 80 percent of the electric utilities in
The industry received a wake-up call after reports last April that hackers based in
Even more worrying to national security experts is the compounding effect that a vulnerable power grid can have on a natural or man-made disaster. At a major cyberwar game this winter in
On the other hand, experts like
Amin, father of the smart grid idea, says a better grid's benefits far outweigh potential security issues.
"Cybersecurity is most effective when it is responsive and flexible, which is exactly what the smart grid system will include," he says. Only then, he adds, will the country have a grid that continues to be worthy of its title as one of the greatest technological marvels of the age.
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National Power Grid That Thinks | Alex Kingsbury
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