Image: US Department of Energy
Image: US Department of Energy

In 2003 a power line failure in Ohio triggered the largest blackout ever in North America, leaving over 50 million people without power. The power distribution grid, based on century-old technology, was taken down by a wayward tree branch. Not a terrorist – a tree branch!

Contrast the power grid with the Internet, where intelligent switches and routers assure that data finds the most efficient path to its destination, even if one or more paths are blocked or “clogged” with traffic. Well, if the power goes out, at least we’ll still have the Internet. Oh, wait ... the Internet runs on electricity, doesn’t it?

Imagine a power grid that uses Internet technology to intelligently monitor energy supply and demand, detect faults, and route electricity in a way that balances the load and bypasses points of failure. Soon you won’t have to imagine it – the smart grid is on its way!

Maybe you’ve heard of a little company named Cisco. Much of the Internet runs on Cisco technology, and now they’re entering the power distribution field. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) selected Cisco to provide grid communication technology for its Smart Grid Demonstration Project. In addition to Cisco routers, the project will employ Itron smart electric meters and smart water modules.

Besides improved reliability, a smart grid is essential for the incorporation of sustainable energy production such as photovoltaic and wind power. Unlike non-renewables, these sources don’t provide a constant, predictable output. The current grid is not designed to handle unpredictable sources or excessive demands – a smart grid can. On top of all that, the smart grid can significantly reduce energy loss due to inefficient distribution.


I can’t compete with Neil deGrasse Tyson, so I’ll let him tell you more about the smart grid. Yeah, the video is a little childish, but engineers are kids at heart – we just play with more expensive toys, and we get paid for it!

Watch Smart Grid on PBS. See more from NOVA scienceNOW.


In a later article, I’ll discuss the consumer side of the smart grid: smart homes and smart appliances.

 

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