Your Community Can Anticipate A Smart Grid

solar collector, which can feed into the smart grid

The smart grid is a societal innovation that you can't control as a community level leader. However, if you research it, you can position yourself to be an early adopter and therefore a real beneficiary of a trend you can't control.

The smart grid refers to an electrical grid that is married to computers in a myriad of ways to promote efficiency and conservation.

Community effects may range from neighborhood power generation to new forms of transportation. Households will notice the option to purchase appliances that automatically defer starting until peak load for the day has passed.

It is useful to understand the "big picture," so you are not surprised when others are manipulating or regulating you in a certain direction, or when entrepreneurs approach you for assistance and are surprised at your lack of awareness.

We predict that the smart grid will bring plenty of both regulation and entrepreneurs.

If you are a municipal leader, you may be called upon to help implement the smart grid, especially if your municipality owns its electric utility.

As a neighborhood leader, you may have future opportunities to increase the attractiveness and therefore the competitiveness of your neighborhood by being early to connect to an emerging interconnected system.

The Basic Concept of the Smart Grid

"Grid" in this case refers to the existing criss-crossing system, or grid, of electrical transmission lines and transformers that already ship electricity for long distances to where it is needed.

So when we say we're going to make the grid "smart," that means that the grid will be married to computer technology.

While it's correct to say that the smart grid won't necessarily be more green than what we have now, the enhanced grid system would have the capacity to make electricity available when and where it will be most efficient to do so.  This contrasts with the current situation of each regional power company attempting to generate enough for peak demand in most situations without having to depend on other utility companies.

So on this website we'll assume that the electricity in the smart grid will be "clean," that is, produced mostly with use of renewable resources.

A third element is energy conservation or minimal use.

Let's use a cooking analogy. Consider the smart grid as a really complex recipe we're experimenting with. So while it's a big challenge to make the smart grid happen, most and probably all of the hundreds of ingredients are already available.

Some of the ingredients are well-known and well-tested, already performing nearly perfectly, well, as perfectly as your personal computer performs, that is. Other ingredients are in the experimental stages or not yet highly reliable.

Still, even after ingredients are identified, tested, and perfected, getting everyone to contribute their ingredient in the right proportion at the right time will be a massive organizational project.

And in fact, the way to a viable future for utility companies or municipal suppliers includes constantly tinkering with ways to produce and distribute energy inexpensively, induce customers to use less energy, and allow consumers to add to the production of electricity or its equivalent.

The Utility and Grid Systems Right Now

Currently there are more than 3,000 electric utilities in the U.S., and each pretty much acts as its own fiefdom. States grant each a monopoly within a service area, and in return the states regulate the rates. I don't know about in your state, but in mine, the utilities usually get what they want.

There are three regional grids in the U.S., which interconnect these local utilities to some degree to allow them to sell power to each other in an emergency. These are the Western, Eastern, and Texas interconnections.

While there are many surprising disconnects in the system, there are a vastly complicated set of inter-utility agreements.

But right now what drives electric utilities to have to construct those expensive new plants is the "peak demand." For example, this might be the hottest day in California, the darkest coldest day in Minnesota, and so forth.

Pricing is the same, whether you're buying that day or at some very off-peak time. You pay the same rate whether you're an energy hog or an energy miser. In other words, there are no incentives for good behavior, either on the part of the utility or the consumer.

While the EnergyStar designation for appliances sold in America is a good indicator of efficiency, only experimental appliances communicate back to the grid.

The utility may talk a good game about conservation, but economically they are rewarded when their customers splurge rather than conserve.

Certainly the utility is rewarded financially when they produce electricity as cheaply as possible in the short run, without any environmental considerations. So in my part of the country they use coal, and a lot of it.

The Future Smart Grid

No one knows exactly how a complete smart grid will come about, although we suspect it's by a lot of federal government regulation and incentives, and by smart engineering of consumer goods and smart business decisions by utilities presented with a different set of financial incentives. The smart grid characteristics, though, that are being discussed and implemented  include:

In the Same Vein:
unrestrained sprinkler
Water Conservation

many garbage cans
Waste Reduction

white bicycles for sharing
Bicycle Sharing

green communities tree planting
Green Communities

solar panels atop school or commercial building
Neighborhood Solar

  • Effective and practical electric cars, buses, and trains, which can generate electricity and convey it back to the grid when idle. A fleet of driverless cars may be feasible in the near future; one of the advantages might be that the public or private fleet owner would be in a position to assure that these vehicles are connected to the grid whenever possible.
  • Appliances and heating and cooling systems that can receive and send information to the grid so that their operation is most efficient for the customer and for the utility. In other words, appliances can run at times when the grid otherwise is experiencing the least demand.
  • Customers could sell surplus electricity to the grid, as well as the other way around. Your solar panels, wind turbine, or electric car might generate power beyond what is needed, and you could "sell back" to the utility. You might even be able to place a neighborhood solar array and storage system on an abandoned property or awkwardly situated parcel of land.
  • Small businesses would have an even greater menu of possible options for reducing their electricity costs to zero or near zero, through generation as well as "smart" manipulation of the timing of when and how certain machinery runs. 

As solar panels become more and more architecturally versatile and attractive, generating cash through energy generation becomes more and more realistic, even in a conventional retail district of smaller stores.

Wind turbines will be an option in the case of larger, free-standing office and industrial buildings, and wind turbine zoning then becomes an issue you need to study and master.

And for community and neighborhood leaders, your public facilities also could become net generators of electricity, resulting in a real savings of public tax dollars.

For instance, your downtown parking lot might become a place where a solar array of panels above the cars would capture the sun's power in order to either sell it back to the grid (a money-maker for the public sector), or to use it to power municipal buildings, swimming pools, street lighting, or the electric vehicle charging stations.

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