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How the Smart Grid Will Work

        Science | Green Science

Baby Steps to a Better Energy Grid
A Houston, Texas utility worker installs a smart meter for CenterPoint Energy on June 5, 2009. The utility company, which serves 2.2 million customers in the metropolitan area, expects to spend $1 billion on smart grid technology.
A Houston, Texas utility worker installs a smart meter for CenterPoint Energy on June 5, 2009. The utility company, which serves 2.2 million customers in the metropolitan area, expects to spend $1 billion on smart grid technology.
AP Photo/Pat Sullivan

The smart grid isn't something you can expect to simply wake up to and find working in your home. And, unlike the United States' 2009 switch from analog to digital television, a government voucher and a trip to your local Wal-Mart won't be enough to make it happen, either. There are many baby steps on the road to a better, more sustainable power system. Here are just a few of them:

Smart meters and thermostats: As of July 2009, these updates on traditional power meters and thermostats had made their way into 8.3 million U.S. homes [source: Merchant]. The meters provide both the user and the electrical grid with more detailed usage information. Smart thermostats are programmable and WiFi equipped to keep track of the weather forecast. These features allow for a more fine-tuned and efficient use of home heating and cooling.

Engaged users: The human element is essential to any conservation movement and the smart grid is no exception. This entails better educating the public about the personal and overarching benefits of energy conservation in the home.

Optimized power plants: As the smart grid takes shape, the automated system will allow for a more concise juggling of resources. Having a deeper, real-time understanding of energy needs is like knowing exactly how many guests you have coming dinner. Without as much guesswork, you pare down the grocery list without fear of anyone going hungry -- or powerless. This also allows power plants that can be harmful to the environment to take a backseat to cleaner, renewable sources.

Renewable Energy: The seamless integration of renewable energy sources is an important part of smart grid integration. Fossil fuel-burning and hydroelectric power plants won't disappear, but wind farms and solar cells will provide an increasing share of the overall power generation for a given area.

State and Federal Regulations: Needless to say, law and politics plays a huge role in the operations of the existing power grid. The smart grid transition, therefore, naturally involves steady action at both levels. A number of states have already adopted renewable energy portfolio standards to promote renewable energy. Meanwhile, a number of regulations to support necessary laws and technological advances continue to advance through federal channels.

The DOE plans to forge the smart grid out of both large and small innovations. In the future, new technologies such as thermal storage, improved lithium-ion batteries and superconducting power cables will further expedite the process.

Explore the links on the next page to learn how these changes will affect your life.


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