Most of us don't spend a lot of time thinking about the electric grid that powers our computers and washing machines. But its days of anonymity are almost over. Smart grids are coming, and someday soon we'll be actively using them to help cut our electric bills, prevent pollution, and save the planet.
What exactly is a smart grid? It is an electrical grid that talks to its customers and tells them when electrical demand is high. When these messages are received, homeowners can turn off a few lights, lower the heat, or postpone a dishwasher load to help ease the system's burden. If everyone on the grid conserves just a few watts, the savings will add up quickly.
And that's just for starters. Down the road, engineers envision smart grids that talk to our computers, helping them to automatically control lights, appliances, and other devices. We won't even have to think about it. When that happens, power companies can charge different rates at different times of the day to reflect the real costs of providing power in high-demand time periods. We'll save money by adjusting consumption, even when we're not at home.
Smart grids have another advantage: They prevent a lot of waste and pollution. Electric companies, eager to avoid blackouts and system crashes, use stand-by generators for peak periods. These generators tend to be older power plants that burn polluting fuels and lack clean air technologies. Better management of fuel consumption can also lead to fewer new plants being built. This is also called "demand response" and according to this article about smart grids, a 5% improvement in the practice would eliminate the need for 90 coal-fired power plants in the next 20 years.
That's why smart grids are coming, and why we'll all be smart to use them.