The U.S. electric grid is something of an engineering wonder. But is it smart enough? Originating in 1882 over copper wiring and becoming accessibly cheap to the public by the mid-1960s, the grid has underpinned every engineering advancement in America since its debut: the toaster, the assembly line, vacuums, rocket ships, the first computer, hairdryers, and the automobile (though not in that order). Few of us would know that our current state of ease relies on a system of over 9,200 generating units, 600,000 miles of transmission lines, and over 1 million megawatts of generating capacity. It’s a feat.

So, what’s wrong with it? Nothing, really. The only problem is that times have changed around it, and its current capacity was not built to handle the load of 2022 – or beyond. We’re already stretching its patchwork capacity as it is, and it will continue to be strained until we can revamp the system with a Smart Grid.

We’ll investigate what that means, why a Smart Grid is needed, and how to make the switch.

Why the US needs a Smart Grid

What’s a Smart Grid? We’ll answer that in a minute, but for now, we’ll go into why the current grid is not enough.

Despite over a half a million miles of power lines, the current system can’t change its stripes – it was built to give, not receive energy. It doesn’t account for solar panels, electric vehicle charging, or wind turbines (and other forms of energy) that contribute back into the system, not to mention a host of connected devices, smart appliances, streaming services, gaming consoles, Wi-Fi connections, and more. Alexa, list some uses for electricity in the home. You get the picture.

And, as we move towards Net Zero Emissions goals, hour-by-hour flexibility will be needed to balance the electrical needs of a connected society. Plus, large swings in weather around the world will offset power reliability (think winter storms, floods, and fires), so a system that can load balance and make adjustments in seconds is increasingly necessary.

The grid needs an update, a reboot from the ground up if it’s going to be able to handle the transformative effects of electricity usage in the 21st century. As it is, this 70-year-old model is already pushed to its limits, being forced to do more than it was intended to do with its aging infrastructure and our advancing technological requirements. Let’s give it a break – or an update.

What a Smart Grid Really Does

A smart grid can provide answers to a lot of the problems of our current grid system. To look at the full effect of what it will provide, we need to take a deeper look at what it will replace.

More than a power generating machine, the current US electric grid is an “ecosystem of asset owners, manufacturers, service providers, and government officials at Federal, state, and local levels, all working together to run one of the most reliable electrical grids in the world.” It’s the sum of its parts, and then some. Replacing it requires buy-in and transformation at many different levels, but the results will be great. No – they will be necessary.

Given our high technological reliance, we need a grid that is “smarter”, more responsive, and that relies on the technologies it helped to create. For example, a modernized grid can provide energy more consistently, with fewer blackouts (here’s looking at you, California) and with more efficiency. Great. How? By using smart sensors called Phasor Measurement Units (PMUs) that regulate how much energy is being used, reroute it when necessary, and give both the power company and consumers alike real-time data on how much energy they’re using and where it’s all going. In technical terms, it does the following:

  • Allows grid operators to assess stability.
  • Provides digital meters that automatically report outages.
  • Comes equipped with relays that can recover from faults in the substation – automatically.
  • Uses feeder switches that can reroute the power during trouble spots – again, automatically.
  • Provides batteries to store excess energy and release it when the demand is high.
  • Uses advanced technologies to balance the load, reducing peak hours and bringing down energy costs.
  • Provides two-way communication between the utility and the consumer, giving folks the data they need to better manage their energy consumption.

Overall, this makes sense. Our energy needs have increased, and the benefits of a Smart Grid are clear. Sign us up!

So, what’s next?

Challenges in Switching Over

There are just a few challenges. Switching from a dinosaur system to a flying car isn’t as easy as flipping a switch (pun intended). Here are some things to consider:

  • Electric Grid investments took a hit in 2020 (what didn’t) but are on the way back up.
  • Who will run it? And can we train them all that quickly? If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. Well, the system isn’t broken yet – our lives are kept in a tenuous balance by the fact that the current electric grid still works. But when the transition comes, who will retrain all the new operators, and will we have the same stability as that we have now?
  • Who gets the excess energy? That’s one big benefit of a Smart Grid, right? To store up and then sell back the extra energy (whether it be from your smart car, solar panels, or utility-side battery). What’s the system for doing that, and who gets the money? And, how much?
  • We’re waiting on you. Part of the need for a Smart Grid is based on the prediction that we’re running hard towards Zero Emissions 2050 and that nuclear and renewable energy sources will be deployed en masse by that point. But what if they aren’t? We’re taking a big risk in investing now, and that uncertainty slows progress. But, is it progress that we need? (It’s the egg.)
  • Security, security, security. Perhaps the most important of them all – Smart Grid cybersecurity. The grid is connected to and underpins nearly every (okay, every) sector of Critical National Infrastructure in the US. All 16 of them. If something happens to our power source, the consequences are dire. Think of blowing up the Death Star. As we transition into new technologies, we need to make sure we don’t make the same mistakes that we made in our headlong rush into IoT-land. We can’t make gadgets, machines, and advancements faster than our ability to secure them. Hopefully, when DevOps led to SecOps, we learned our lesson.

If you’re in the power sector, it’s important to start investing in this knowledge base now and getting the answers you need, so when the transition is made, you’ll be ahead of how to protect it. Not everyone in the power sector is a cybersecurity guru (you know this), but as the IT people ourselves, it becomes us to be informed about the issues and raise the red flag when progress outstrips safety.

For now, the benefits of the Smart Grid are clear, and though not without challenges, should be the boon we need to keep our society running at the breakneck pace it’s currently on. We just need to make sure security keeps up.

To see how your electric utility can secure against the rate of change, visit us and see how we can help.