What is a Smart Grid?
As the world's energy suppliers begin to modernize the technology used to provide consumers with energy, the term "smart grid" has become more commonplace. But what is a smart grid? In short, a smart grid employs digital technology to allow for two-way communication between energy providers and their customers. This way, the supplier can obtain important information about usage patterns for different areas they service, and consumers can gain insight into their own energy use, allowing them to adjust if necessary to increase both the efficiency and cost effectiveness of their heating, cooling and electrical systems.
Energy utilities using smart grid technology—or that are in the process of implementing it—point to several factors that make a smart system particularly attractive. In general, the energy grid infrastructure in first-world nations was first deployed around 100 years ago. It's currently aging and—as anyone who's lost power during a heat wave or big storm can attest—can be unreliable. The failure of energy grids is extremely costly to energy companies, consumers (think of all the lost productivity—not to mention the spoiled groceries) and the government. So modernizing the distribution of energy and ensuring that the grid can provide real-time, two-way communication to utilities and consumers is job one for local and national energy providers right now.
One of the potential benefits of a smart grid is more efficient transmission of electricity. For example, based on usage patterns, it might be possible for power companies to raise or lower the amount of electricity they deliver to certain areas at certain times. This way, an "always on" flow of the peak electricity is avoided, reducing costs for the company and the consumer alike. Additionally, a smart grid can provide the benefit of real-time monitoring of the energy grid, down to the individual home (particularly if the home is equipped with a modern smart meter), so that energy companies can respond more quickly and efficiently to power outages or other problems.
An important benefit of new smart grid technologies is that they are often configured to work with new large-scale renewable energy delivery systems like solar, wind or geothermal power.
Finally, the smart grid is seen as more secure—the threat of a terrorist attack on the aging energy grid or its means of energy distribution (particularly in the form of nuclear power plants) is increased if the grid in question isn't "self aware" enough to detect security breaches—either physical or digital—and report them immediately to avoid or mitigate further damage.
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