What is a Smart Grid?

Discover what makes a smart grid, and find out if integrating with one could help your home automation system function more efficiently.


Garage Exterior of the HGTV Green Home 2012 located in Serenbe, GA

Photo by: Eric Perry

Eric Perry

By: Sean McEvoy

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.

Installing Solar Panels

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Before Jeff Wilson even broke ground on the Deep Energy Retrofit (DER) of his 70-year-old Cape Cod home, he started planning for solar panels. This allowed time to apply for tax credits and incentives that essentially drove the cost of the $32,000 system down to $14,000. After solar specialists evaluated Jeff's property and estimated that a system would be 89 percent efficient given some minor obstacles such as trees — and uncontrollable factors like cloudy Ohio winters — the system was designed and installed. 

Jeff wanted to capture the most sunlight possible and prevent the solar panels from overheating, which makes them less efficient. For this reason, he installed WeatherBond Pro Weld-Free TPO (thermoplastic polyolefin), a heavy-duty rubber roof that is white to reflect the sun. He rolled this roofing out (it comes in sheets) on the flat roof.

With some roof retrofits on the back of the house to raise the pitch to nearly flat (this catches more rays), Jeff put his house in a much better position to capture solar energy. 

Jeff has space to expand the solar energy system if he wants. For now, panels take up one-quarter of Jeff's total roof area and are positioned on the back of the house where no one can see. 

The solar panels are connected to an inverter in the garage that turns direct current (DC) energy into alternating current (AC) energy, which is the type of energy we use in our homes. No backup battery is required for this system, making it cleaner and more efficient. 

The inverter is an expensive part of the overall solar panel system, Jeff says. His inverter is located in his garage and tied to a meter his utility company installs. 

The inverter display gives Jeff statistics on energy generated and consumed. Here, the meter notes that 1,958 pounds of carbon were saved by using the solar panels. 

A digital meter inside Jeff's home shows him at any given time how much solar energy his household used and how much extra was sold back to the utility company. 

Jeff can visit SunPower's monitoring website to measure his solar energy production and usage. He can check the history of his energy production at any time. The site also provides interesting comparisons, such as the lifetime energy produced by the solar energy system and how much carbon that saves in terms of gas miles. The system can even be monitored on an iPhone or iPod Touch. 

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.

Small Steps in Solar Power

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