There are dozens of efforts happening in government to transform government into a 21st century model of governance and service delivery. Often, we hear a lot about technologies like cloud, mobile, energy efficiency – but everything we do requires power. That’s where our current electrical grid comes into play.
Power companies are essentially “natural monopolies,” think back to your economics classes when you learned about economies of scale – this applies to your power company. In essence, it is cheaper for one power company to provide energy over a large market, rather having competing interests. This is why power companies are allowed to function as monopolies, and why they are subject to strict regulation on prices.
Although our power companies are natural monopolies, they are quickly becoming outdated and soon as a country we will be faced with challenges to our infrastructure. Our electrical grids are an important element for our security, as they are vulnerable to attacks and potentially other kinds of system failures.
Smart Grid technology offers a solution. Before we get into a discussion of the Smart Grid, let’s rewind the clock and talk about our current electrical grid. To me, it is a marvel that when I want to turn on the lights, all I need to do is flip in a switch. For the majority of the time, this is a pleasant user experience provided to me by my power company. Although the system is still working, our current infrastructure has becoming outdated and is in need of updates.
The Department of Energy put out an interesting report about the dire need to update our electrical grid, in the report they provide an interesting analogy about Alexander Graham Bell:
If Alexander Graham Bell were somehow transported to the 21st century, he would not begin to recognize the components of modern telephony – cell phones, texting, cell towers, PDAs, etc. – while Thomas Edison, one of the grid’s key early architects, would be totally familiar with the grid.
While this thought experiment speaks volumes about appearances, it is far from the whole story. Edison would be quite familiar with the grid’s basic infrastructure and perhaps even an electromechanical connection or two, but he would be just as dazzled as Graham Bell with the technology behind the scenes.
Our century-old power grid is the largest interconnected machine on Earth, so massively complex and inextricably linked to human involvement and endeavor that it has alternately (and appropriately) been called an ecosystem. It consists of more than 9,200 electric generating units with more than 1,000,000 megawatts of generating capacity connected to more than 300,000 miles of transmission lines.
Thankfully, the report acknowledges there is consensus that the grid needs to be updated, and steps have been taken to update our infrastructure. The report has a lot of great information about the current electrical grid, and future opportunities with a Smart Grid.
As we can see, critical to the advancement of providing services, our electrical grids are critical to delivering improved services to Americans. I took a look at SmartGrid.gov and found a lot of interesting information about how Smart Grids may be impacting us in the future.
Smartgrid.gov states the importance of our electrical grids, “Today, an electricity disruption such as a blackout can have a domino effect—a series of failures that can affect banking, communications, traffic, and security. This is a particular threat in the winter, when homeowners can be left without heat.”
The Smart Grid represents an unprecedented opportunity to move the energy industry into a new era of reliability, availability, and efficiency that will contribute to our economic and environmental health. During the transition period, it will be critical to carry out testing, technology improvements, consumer education, development of standards and regulations, and information sharing between projects to ensure that the benefits we envision from the Smart Grid become a reality. The benefits associated with the Smart Grid include:
- More efficient transmission of electricity
- Quicker restoration of electricity after power disturbances
- Reduced operations and management costs for utilities, and ultimately lower power costs for consumers
- Reduced peak demand, which will also help lower electricity rates
- Increased integration of large-scale renewable energy systems
- Better integration of customer-owner power generation systems, including renewable energy systems
- Improved security
When a power outage occurs, Smart Grid technologies will detect and isolate the outages, containing them before they become large-scale blackouts. The new technologies will also help ensure that electricity recovery resumes quickly and strategically after an emergency—routing electricity to emergency services first, for example. In addition, the Smart Grid will take greater advantage of customer-owned power generators to produce power when it is not available from utilities. By combining these “distributed generation” resources, a community could keep its health center, police department, traffic lights, phone system, and grocery store operating during emergencies.
Updating our electrical grid will be critical to supplying power for modern technology. Further, the by updating our electrical grid infrastructure, we can become more efficient in energy consumption; increase our national security and improved reliability in our power systems during a crisis. I’d encourage you to take a look at the energy.gov report, as it provides a great overview of the current system and the dire need for updates.
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