Image by horizontal.integration via FlickrWhat is a Smart Grid? Perhaps it is easier to start with what a Smart Grid is NOT.
A Smart Grid is not a bunch of one-way meters spinning around as you consume and a guy who drives around checking the meter periodically, sometimes correcting assumptions made by your electric company about your energy consumption and sometimes not.
A Smart Grid is not a grid that is subject to the whims of weather, mischievous squirrels, bird strikes or spikes in consumption by millions of users.
So, what is a Smart Grid, then?
The good folks at Inhabitat.com put it this way:
A smart grid delivers electricity using digital technology that tracks power consumption with smart meters, special electrical meters that instantly transmit energy usage information to utilities via wireless networks. Smart meters also let us track our own energy use hour-by-hour on the Internet and with third-party computer programs.
Basically, we're talking about real-time, two-way communication between you or your business and your utility provider. This helps manage usage and flow and consumption, can help predict spikes and shift sources rapidly in response to changing needs.
And if you have solar panels, wind turbines, plug-in hybrid vehicles or any other potential generating source, smart grid technology will help you feed that into the mix, so that you become a generator, not just a consumer.
Toronto Star energy writer Tyler Hamilton describes it this way:
The true vision of the smart grid is a self-healing, automated grid that can manage complex flows of electrons, from the hundreds — potentially thousands — of large and small sources of power to the millions of homes, businesses, industrial customers and, potentially, electric cars that require that energy.
Okay, so basically, a Smart Grid is like a brain for energy distribution. Nerve endings all over your body send information back to the brain telling the brain when you are too hot or too cold; that you need more energy in one part of the body or another (exercise and eating, for instance, have different requirements in different regions of the body); and helps you regulate your every action.
Many players are getting involved in the act, from the federal government, which recently allocated $3.3B to Smart Grid technology development, to start-ups and even large companies like IBM and Google.
Google's PowerMeter, which they describe as being in prototype, will receive information from utility smart meters and energy management devices and provide anyone who signs up access to your home electricity consumption right on your iGoogle homepage.
Imagine being able to track and manage your own energy consumption so that you know when it will be least expensive to do your laundry or watch that episode of "Lost" that you Tivo'd. (Of course, that time is probably overnight when you are asleep, but nevertheless...)
Essentially a Smart Grid will put more power in the hands of consumers and make them partners with utilities rather than simply customers or rate payers. In the last analysis, a Smart Grid is just what it sounds like: smart.
Here are more resources on the concept of a Smart Grid:
Wired article from March 2009
Earth2Tech.com FAQ, which includes a list of companies working on various components for making the grid smarter.