How Smart Are We about Smart Grids?

Feb. 19, 2010

Few people are questioning the need for a new U.S. electricity infrastructure. After all, the current grid, some of which dates to the 1940s, has seen little updating since the 1970s, yet per capita demand has doubled since that decade. And the DOE predicts that demand for electricity will increase 25 percent over the next 20 years. As Energy Secretary Steven Chu said when announcing stimulus funds for smart grid development, "America cannot build a 21st-century energy economy with a mid-20th-century electricity system."

Despite the urgency and necessity, two-way smart grids remain a challenging concept to grasp and implement, not only due to their scale, cost, and technical complexity, but to their fundamentally different paradigm. We tend to think of electricity generation as a local activity, a product produced by a company whose address on our bill is within the community or at least the state. As with many products, we consume electricity without actively participating in the system that transports this product to us. These are not the features of the next infrastructure.

Smart grids are vast – the "super smart grid" being discussed in Europe would encompass as many as 13 time zones and three continents, from North Africa and Europe to the Middle East and Turkey. Still, the backbone of such international, intercontinental grids would be independent of local smart grids, which could continue to function even if the backbone were broken.

The consumption of electricity in smart grids is a two-way affair. Some consumers may generate their own electricity and supply a portion of it to the grid. The consumers’ smart electrical devices will speak, if not surrender, to the energy management controllers of the grid instead of receiving whatever supply of electricity is requested.

Simply put, the smart grid is a big idea, another fascinating facet of the global village we inhabit. Building it will require a lot of bold energy in many locations. One example is in Chicago, where the BOMA chapter is aiming to develop the country’s first smart grid program for commercial office buildings.

Here at BUILDINGS we want to know what your organization is thinking and doing about the 21st-century electrical infrastructure. Write or phone me with your initiatives and questions so we can increase our collective IQ on the ways to solve, and reap the benefits of, the smart grid.

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