Several years ago, the National Academy of Engineering set about ranking the 20th century's greatest technological achievements. A group of scientists and engineers, led by the first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong, weighed in and came to a startling conclusion: The greatest achievement wasn't the Apollo program, the automobile, or the splitting of the atom. It was the electrical grid.
But while it may have been a technical wonder at the time of construction, the nation's power grid has become dangerously antiquated over the past few decades. If technology in the home is racing ahead at broadband speed, the power grid is stuck back in the days of rotary-dial phones. According to industry statistics, the dog food industry spends more on research and development than the electrical sector does. Aging technology means more frequent blackouts, a greater vulnerability to computer hackers, and, perhaps most insidious, colossal inefficiency. As part of the economic stimulus package, the Obama administration has pledged $3.4 billion toward "smart grid" technology—the next generation of infrastructure, meant to stabilize the grid in the event of a failure, incorporate green technology, and vastly improve efficiency. But those billions are a drop in the bucket toward bringing the entire national grid into the 21st century, which could take decades and cost upwards of $100 billion, some experts estimate.
Better bulbs. There are several basic components of a smart grid. Two-way movement of power is critical. Conventionally, power plants simply send electricity to homes. In a smart system, homes equipped with solar panels or wind turbines would be able to push power into the grid as well. Such a system also would be more stable and able to repair itself in the event of a blackout or other disruption. "In the more distant future, smart power grids may be able to coordinate the use of electricity in the home—for instance, turning on an appliance like a washing machine at a time of day when there is ample power on the grid and electrical prices are low," says Massoud Amin, an electrical engineering professor at the University of Minnesota who is credited with coining the phrase "smart grid."
But the most important near-term reason to smarten the grid is waste reduction. Cutting tiny inefficiencies can have dramatic effects on the entire system. Consider the case of the humble incandescent light bulb. By the time power has been generated at a plant, transported across high-tension lines, and sent to the lighting fixture, a measly 0.8 percent of the power is converted into light. More efficient light bulbs, like light-emitting diodes, could vastly alter that equation. Widely adopting LEDs in the next two decades could save $265 billion in energy costs, remove the need to build 40 new power plants, and cut the demand for lighting electricity by more than 30 percent, according to the Department of Energy.
Most Americans are completely unaware of how much power common household items like the light bulb fritter away. So smartening the public is as critical as smartening the grid itself. Individual smart meters that replace the traditional power meters installed on homes can show consumers how much power their home is using at given times of the day and how much that power is costing. Indeed, policymakers and utilities hope that giving people the true costs of their electric appliance use will naturally change their behavior and give them an incentive to make cheaper choices.
To that end, the Internet search giant Google recently released a free product called PowerMeter that allows users to track their power usage in near real time on their computers. "The way Americans currently buy electricity is like shopping for groceries every day but not getting the bill until the end of the month," Edward Lu, a manager with Google's PowerMeter project, told a Senate hearing last spring. "When consumers can see in real time how much energy they are using, they save 5 to 15 percent on their electricity use with simple behavioral changes."