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How the Smart Grid Will Work

        Science | Green Science

Smart Grid Technology
A transmission dispatcher helps manage the flow of electricity during a 2004 heat wave in California. Note the map tracking the flow of electricity through the entire state.
A transmission dispatcher helps manage the flow of electricity during a 2004 heat wave in California. Note the map tracking the flow of electricity through the entire state.
David McNew/Getty Images News/Getty Images

To address the problems discussed in the previous section, the U.S. Department of Energy plans to unroll a less centralized, producer-interactive network. Naturally, no single fix can accommodate this change. Numerous concepts, philosophies and technologies go into steering the system to a more efficient future. Here are two of the big ones.

Advanced metering infrastructure (AMI): This is one aspect of the smart grid that you can already find in many homes and businesses. The aim is to take the mystery and guesswork out of personal energy consumption. Instead of just waiting for the bill or staring dumbfounded at the spinning dials on the power meter outside, users can now use wattage readers to check how much juice their appliances and gadgets use. In the future, this concept may go even further. Imagine checking the thermostat and watching price figures tick by. How might that affect your decision to crank the heat on a chilly evening? Giving users more information about the power they use empowers them to fine-tune their own conservation to cut out unnecessary waste.

Visualization technology: Think back to the juggler analogy. This is the smart grid juggler of the future: an automated computer system capable of instantly responding to the ebb and flow of energy production and demand across the grid. The DOE cites one project in particular: Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Visualizing Energy Resources Dynamically on Earth (VERDE) system, built on the Google Earth platform. In addition to VERDE, the DOE plans to use Phasor measurement units (PMU) to keep precise tabs on electrical usage throughout the smart grid and take the guesswork out of supplying adequate power.

If all goes according to plan, these two approaches will lead to a situation where both the user and the automated distributer of the electricity have far more information -- and therefore power -- over the flow of electricity. This, in turn, allows for more responsible expenditures all around -- from power generation plants to the home entertainment center at the end of the line.