The Smart Grid Has a Growth Spurt

Which country has the smartest grid? Which U.S. state has the most smart meters? What’s Google got to do with the grid? Answers to these questions and more can be found in our web exclusives. Here’s a taste of what you’ll find online.

Why is a power generation industry publication covering the smart grid, which most people tend to equate with managing electricity use (and maybe its transmission)? Of the many reasons, here are two of the most obvious.

Power generation is just the beginning of the electricity value chain, and thanks to changes up and down that chain, power generation — like every other link — will be affected by developments in smart grid technology. Slowly but surely, smart grid projects will have implications for those involved in everything from resource management planning (Do we build another gas-fired plant, or add a solar plant to an existing gas plant, or integrate distributed solar resources?) to staffing power generation projects (Should we scale back in thermal plants so we can afford more maintenance staff for distributed generation resources?).

Second, as more variable-output renewable resources get added to the grid, the operation and maintenance of baseload plants becomes more complex — at least until better grid-balancing tools are in place across the continent and around the globe.

As part of POWER’s January forecasting issue, we’re providing three angles on the state of the smart grid plus a few predictions about what its near-term future holds. In order to give our audience the option to explore further the smart grid developments that we address, we are publishing the full stories (which include a wealth of web links) at www.powermag.com. You’ll find links to the three stories previewed below in the Web Exclusives section of our home page, as well as in the issue archive list.

E Pluribus Unum?

"U.S. Smart Grid Forecast: Flurries of Activity" starts by looking at the "perfect storm" of factors that are gathering to create the most hospitable climate for smart grid development activities that has yet been seen in the U.S. The allocation of federal dollars for smart grid projects is the most well-publicized factor, but it’s not the only one. Nor are federal dollars alone sufficient to turn smart grid ideas into smarter electrons.

Experts within the industry agree that "the" smart grid will likely always be a work in progress, given how many technologies and stakeholders and individual elements need to be modernized and integrated in order to make the current system smarter. Whether the U.S. ever achieves a unified smart grid depends in part on how well smaller smart grids prove to be. We look at different models and motivations for smart grid project development being pursued on three coasts and in the center of the country.

Some things are clear. As federal and/or state renewable standards and greenhouse gas emission limits become reality, every utility will have a different set of incentives to minimize load increases, shift load from peak periods, and integrate renewable generation into its resource plan. Smart grid technologies have integral roles to play in achieving those goals.

As with any new technology or industry paradigm, there are bound to be transition issues, and it’s the early adopters who get the growing pains — aka, lawsuits — along with the bragging rights.

What’s in It for Me?

One of the most talked-about smart grid projects over the past year has been Xcel Energy’s SmartGridCity — an effort to turn Boulder, Colo., into a living lab for testing a broad assortment of smart grid technologies and applications. For "What Do Customers Expect from the Smart Grid?" we asked a variety of residents what they know about and expect from the project.

Boulder, a college town of roughly 90,000 residents, has a reputation for embracing progressive ideas and technologies. But even in this city, with a populace that’s more highly educated than most, there’s little consensus about the anticipated benefits and downsides of a full-blown mini smart grid.

How Do You Say "Smart Grid" in Your Language?

The U.S. isn’t the only country evaluating and implementing elements of a smart grid. In fact, it could be argued that other nations are much farther along the path to a comprehensive, technically advanced system for integrating renewables, managing load, and creating a more flexible power grid.

"Which Country’s Grid Is the Smartest?" takes a quick round-the-world tour of the nations that have made and are preparing to make the most dramatic smart grid moves. Like the children in Lake Wobegon (humorist Garrison Keillor’s fictional Minnesota town), every country’s smart grid is in some way "above average" — if the press releases are to be believed.

Self-promotion aside, some of the grid-related innovations are colorfully location-specific, demonstrating that every country’s grid issues derive from a unique set of circumstances and may well require at least somewhat customized solutions. From now on, when you travel internationally, the shape of the outlets may not be the only thing about electricity service that varies from country to country.

Gail Reitenbach, PhD is POWER’s managing editor.