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'Smart grid' promises dawn of high-efficiency energy use

Linked system would conserve, buy back power

By H. Josef Hebert
Associated Press / June 7, 2009
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WASHINGTON - Thomas Alva Edison, meet the Internet.

More than a century after Edison invented a reliable light bulb, the nation's electricity distribution system, an aging web of power lines, is poised to move into the digital age.

The "smart grid" has become the buzz of the electric power industry, at the White House, and among members of Congress. President Obama says the advancement is essential to boost development of wind and solar power, get people to use less energy, and to tackle climate change.

What smart-grid visionaries see coming are home thermostats and appliances that adjust automatically depending on the cost of power; a water heater that may get juice from a neighbor's rooftop solar panel; and a plug-in hybrid electric car that charges one minute and then, on a scorching-hot day, sends electricity back to the grid to help head off a brownout.

In a smart-grid system, utilities get instant feedback on a transformer outage, shift easily among energy sources, integrating wind and solar energy with electricity from coal-burning power plants, and go into homes and businesses to automatically adjust power use based on prearranged agreements.

"It's the marriage of information technology and automation technology with the existing electricity network. This is the energy Internet," said Bob Gilligan, vice president for transmission at GE Energy, which is aggressively pursuing smart-grid development. "There are going to be applications 10 years from now that you and I have no idea that we're going to want or need or think are essential to our lives."

Hundreds of technology companies and almost every major electric utility company see smart grid as the future. That interest got a boost with the availability of $4.5 billion in federal economic recovery money for smart-grid technology.

But smart grid will not be cheap. Cost estimates run as high as $75 billion. Who is going to pay the bill? Will consumers get the payback they are promised? Might "smart meters" be too intrusive? Could an end-to-end computerization of the grid increase the risk of cyberattacks?

Today's grid is seen by many as little different from one envisioned by Edison 127 years ago.

The hundreds of thousands of miles of power lines that crisscross the country have been compared to a river flowing down a hill: an inefficient one-way movement of electrons from power plant to consumer. There is little way to provide any feedback of information to the power company running the system or to those buying the electricity.

"The heart of a smart grid is to make the grid more flexible, to more easily control the flow of electrons, and make it more efficient and reliable," said Greg Scheu, head of the power production division at ABB North America, a grid technology provider.

"The meter is only the beginning," said Alex Huang, director of a grid technology center at North Carolina State University. He said that instead of power flowing from a small number of power plants, the smart grid can usher in a system of distributed energy so electricity "will flow from homes and businesses into the grid. Neighborhoods will use local power and not just power flowing from a single source."

There are glimpses of what the future grid might look like.

On the University of Colorado campus in Boulder, the chancellor's home has been turned into a smart-grid showhouse as part of a citywide, $100 million project spearheaded by Xcel Energy. The home has a laptop-controlled electricity management system that integrates a rooftop solar panel with grid-supplied power. It also tracks energy use and is equipped to charge a plug-in hybrid electric car.

Florida Power & Light is planning to provide smart meters for 1 million homes and businesses in the Miami area over the next two years in a $200 million project.

"We've got about 70 [smart grid] pilots all over the country right now," said Mike Oldak, a specialist on smart grid at the Edison Electric Institute, which represents investor-owned power companies.

An Energy Department study projects energy savings of 5 percent to 15 percent from smart grid.