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We read a great deal in the media and are involved in discussions about new sources of energy that can be both renewable and clean. So far there has been much less focus on new and more efficient approaches to managing the distribution of energy resources. Converting various forms of energy into electrical energy is the key to green energy. Our present grids for distributing electricity are generally about 50 years old and have difficulty keeping up with the jobs that they were designed to do.

Thomas Edison developed the first commercial system for the distribution of electrical power in 1882. In a bit over a century electrical power has made a steady movement toward supplanting older forms of energy generation. There is an important difference between electrical energy and many of the other forms of energy that are in common use. Fuels such as oil, natural gas, coal, etc. can be stored for future usage. Electricity is a much more dynamic form of energy and at this point the available means of storing it for future demand are very limited. The electrical grid is similar to a transportation network such as freeways. During certain times of a 24 hour day they are strained to maximum capacity. At other times they have a large surplus capacity.

It has become common practice to use a system of rolling blackouts on hot summer days when air conditioning demand pushes the system beyond its capacity. There have been several instances of widespread crashes of the grids. The existing infrastructure is inadequate to handle the present generation and distribution of electrical power. As we explore the possibilities of such innovations as electric automobiles, the demands on the system will only increase.

There are three phases involved in the production and use of electrical power: generation, transmission and distribution. Stepping up the voltage of the power for the transmission phase makes it possible to move it over long distances with minimal loss of power in the process. This is done with a transformer at the generating site. Transmission lines terminate at substations that use a transformer to step the current back down to an appropriate for for use by residential and industrial customers.


The US is divided into three interconnected power grids. One for the east and midwest, another for the west and one for Texas all by itself. The Texas grid was setup during WWII. For a more detailed explanation of how this came about,

Why Texas Has Its Own Power Grid    

This is what the present setup looks like.


The traditional approach to electrical power distribution has been that end users are passive recipients. You are connected to the grid. You turn on a light or your computer and you draw electricity from the grid. A meter records your usage and periodically someone from the power company comes around to read the meter and the data is used to generate a bill for your usage.

There is a broad range of new technologies under development that offer various prospects for improving the efficiency of our management and usage of electrical power. They are being lumped together under the term smart grid. The fundamental notion involved in the idea of a smart grid is combining the technology of the generation and distribution of electrical power with the technology of computer networks to provide the capacity for a network that is capable of advanced communication and control. A basic source of information is the website sponsored by the Federal Smart Grid Task Force.


Smart meters are a first step in the building of a smart grid, but by themselves do not create a smart grid. They incorporate the capacity for two way communication between power user and power company. They are presently being installed in a number of areas. Their immediate impact is to eliminate the need for meter readers since the meters can automatically report power usage. That makes their cost and installation attractive to power companies. They have the potential to do a number of other things. They have the potential to adjust power demand during peak periods and allow for adjustments less draconian than rolling blackouts. They could make it possible to establish variable rates which encourage people to shift usage to off peek hours. There is also a new generation of smart home appliances which can interact with them.

There is already some resistance to the installation of smart meters.

Gauging the pros and cons of smart meters  

But the accuracy of smart meters - in particular, the ones used by PG&E's - has been called into question. Angry homeowners have complained that their utility bills soared after the new meters were installed. The California Public Utilities Commission started an investigation. And San Francisco's city attorney has asked the commission to halt PG&E's meter installations program until the investigation wraps up.
Widespread global use

The uproar troubles state officials and energy experts who say the meters could offer great benefits down the road. But those benefits depend on homeowners trusting the meters and using the information they provide.

One can but imagine how the same people will react when some bureaucrat cuts back their AC on a hot July day.

The vision of a fully integrated smart grid has much broader objectives. Our race to beat the consequences of global warming involves eliminating the carbon based sources of energy and reducing out total consumption of energy. The present power grid is an inefficient approach to energy management. In order to meet peak demand it must maintain a capacity greater than is needed at other times. More efficient means of management can reduce these requirements. There are several areas in which such development is being focused.

Integrated Communications Technologies

These fall into using broadband networks running over the power lines and the use of wireless networks.

Sensing and Measurement Technologies

Smart meters are the first step in this process. Utility monitoring systems are in various stages of development. There has been more progress in installation in distribution networks than in long distance transmission networks.

New Technologies to improve the transmission and storage of power.

A certain amount of this technology is already available is usable form. Others are in various stages of development. As with any form of technology there is a weeding out process to determine the specific forms that will be widely implemented. There are also a huge number of organizational and economic issues involved.

There is a huge conglomeration of people and organizations involved in the generation, transmission and distribution of electrical power in the US. It is a mixture of private investor owned companies, local state and federal power producers and government regulatory agencies. There is little organizational coherence or rationality to it. The great Enron scandal showed just how vulnerable it is to corrupt manipulation. New organizational and regulatory approaches will be necessary to develop a coherent approach to an advanced integrated smart grid.

The development, production and installation of all this new technology represents a really major economic investment. Federal and state governments have made some tentative beginnings in funding some planning and demonstration projects. They are pretty much a drop in the bucket in comparison to what needs to be done.

This diary has been a very general overview of a complex topic. It is a subject that I am interested in exploring and I plan to do some more witting about it.

Originally posted to Richard Lyon on Sun Jul 11, 2010 at 01:24 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

    •  great diary (5+ / 0-)

      very informative

      there is a typo in your title

      Thank you, Keith Olbermann

      by LivesInAShoe on Sun Jul 11, 2010 at 01:32:15 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  The beuaty of the smart grid lies in (13+ / 0-)

      exposing people's energy consumption and thereby letting them take control of their usage. As you mentioned, it's been a passive consumption thus far.

      Research has shown that by providing visibility to consumption, people take on greater restraint, much in the way people play games, competitively trying to lower their usage (as is with Toyota Prius owners who have their usage displayed on the dashboard).

      As an aside, if AG Bell were around today, he wouldn't recognize the telephone infrastructure, but if Edison were here, he'd know the entire grid because it hasn't changed since he created it.

      Chaos. It's not just a theory.

      by PBnJ on Sun Jul 11, 2010 at 01:56:22 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  That's my impression. (10+ / 0-)

        The telecommunications system has become a computer network. AT&T was in the forefront of computer network development long ago. That revolution has not really come to the electric power industry in any significant way.

      •  It does more. (0+ / 0-)

        It helps to optimize consumption as well, to make better use of energy generation resources, leveling demand.

        Smart grids are foundation technology for renewables.

        "Life immitates art, but takes license." - ko

        by koNko on Sun Jul 11, 2010 at 11:06:47 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Unfortunately, I get the sense that ... (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          ... energy suppliers are simply herding more available power from residential customers to their biggest customers to keep their cost down during peak load periods.

          We CANNOT let the Private Sector decide in isolation how to apply the potential of any breakthroughs in Energy Distribution. The tendency will always be to "reward the best customers"  ASAP, and "consider secondary customers later." And "later" never seems to arrive.

          "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will." -- Frederick Douglass

          by Egalitare on Mon Jul 12, 2010 at 02:32:21 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Any redutions are good. (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            petral, Egalitare

            But I agree that regulation of big indusrrial or commercial users is very importiant too.

            Where I live (Shanghai) there are energy efficency standards for commercial users which are progressively tightening, and surcharges for over consumption for both commercial a household users.

            Furthermore, commercial useres are calssified into levels of consumption, and when there are power shortages (in summer) the are required to suspend operation on a rotating schedule and/or operate at night and idle by day.

            So this promotes energy conservation.

            But recently, because China narrowly missed meeting it's annual energy intensty goal, Mr. Wen made the now famous "Iron Hand" speech chastizing high energy consuming industries and warning them to make good on their targets or face heavy fines, shutdowns and loss of business license if companies repeatedly fail to meet goals.

            I think US industries would be outraged if Joe Biden made such a speech, but he can be pretty outspoken too, so feel free to send him this:

            Wen "Iron Hand" Speech - Green Leap Forward

            If anyone would make that speech it would be Biden.  We really liked his "BFD" remark here!

            "Life immitates art, but takes license." - ko

            by koNko on Mon Jul 12, 2010 at 03:41:09 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

  •  Really Informative! (14+ / 0-)

    I look forward to your Diaries.

    Integrated Communications Technologies

    Boldface is your friend when it comes to subtitles. The three in your Diary are important and well defined. The Reader should see them on first glance.

    The Pluto Chronicles. You want reality? You can't handle reality!

    by Pluto on Sun Jul 11, 2010 at 01:31:06 PM PDT

  •  i would like to read more about these: (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    tnichlsn, subtropolis, pico, koNko

    Integrated Communications Technologies

    Sensing and Measurement Technologies

    New Technologies to improve the transmission and storage of power.

    hope you wil expand each of these into a separate diary in the near future

    Thank you, Keith Olbermann

    by LivesInAShoe on Sun Jul 11, 2010 at 01:36:32 PM PDT

  •  great job! it's OT in the soccer world cup (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    LivesInAShoe, pico, LaughingPlanet

    final...I will be back later

  •  any news on new alloys that allow power (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    koNko, Predictor, condorcet

    to flow with less resistance/get transmitted more efficiently?

    What do we want??? Equal rights! When do we want them??? Now!

    by tnichlsn on Sun Jul 11, 2010 at 01:45:05 PM PDT

  •  We have solar panels that are tied into the grid, (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    tnichlsn, side pocket, subtropolis

    and there are days when our meter actually runs backwards as we produce more energy than we use.

    After PG&E's unsuccessful attempt to restrict the ability of local governments to encourage alternative energy resources, I would be skeptical of any smart meters that they introduced, sponsored or had anything to do with unless the PUC would do a firmer job of oversight and control.

  •  Vulnerability of the grid[s] to EMP (7+ / 0-)

    is an open threat. Doesn't have to be nuclear in nature, either.

    Another vulnerability of grids, the possibility of a hit by a geomagnetic storm, caused by a solar coronal mass ejection [CME], and huge geomagnetically induced currents.

    We've already seen what can happen when this happens, to a certain extent, but we've never been hit in modern times with a good direct whack from solar plasma.  

    James Carville emerges from the conflagration, riding a burning alligator.

    by shpilk on Sun Jul 11, 2010 at 02:05:39 PM PDT

  •  What role did Westinghouse play in the (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    subtropolis, koNko, Richard Lyon

    development of the grid? I thought Edison's DC generating powers systems could not send current over long distances.

    A conservative government is an organized hypocrisy.

    by dry heat dem on Sun Jul 11, 2010 at 04:22:02 PM PDT

    •  Westinghouse was the key (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      subtropolis, koNko

      person in developing the transmission of power over longer distances.

    •  DC is great for long distances (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      koNko, Richard Lyon

      Through undersea cables, for example. Or from a dam to a mine, many hundreds of kilometers away. Note the map in the diary. The yellow lines are HVDC transmission circuits.

      High-voltage direct current

      A high-voltage, direct current (HVDC) electric power transmission system uses direct current for the bulk transmission of electrical power, in contrast with the more common alternating current systems. For long-distance distribution, HVDC systems are less expensive and suffer lower electrical losses. For shorter distances, the higher cost of DC conversion equipment compared to an AC system may be warranted where other benefits of direct current links are useful.

      Also, AC is easier to "step down" from very high voltages to the moderate levels required in a home. This is what the transformers in your neighbourhood (or your bedroom) do. Tesla, through Westinghouse, had the right idea for transmission from the massive generators at Niagra Falls to, say, your bedside lamp. Edison's system would have been a real headache.

      However, for "point to point" transmission of power over really long distances DC shines.

      Voltage in a circuit is the electromotive force (EMF). An analogy would be the pressure in a water pipe. Current is the amount of electricity that is flowing. One can think of it as the quantity of water that is traveling past some point per second. Resistance is the opposition in a material to the flow of electrons. So, corrosion, blockages, etc.

      A wire or cable has some resistance to current, which causes it to heat up. For a given resistance, the higher the current, the higher the "voltage drop" along the line. This equates to a loss of the power that is being transmitted.

      The answer is to use very high voltages, which, following Ohm's Law, reduces the current. This solves the resistance problem but AC creates more issues. Like reactance. This is opposition to current change. AC creates electromagnetic fields ("counter EMF") that, essentially, put the brakes on the current change. As DC current isn't changing, this isn't an issue.

  •  I was reading my monthly electric booklet (0+ / 0-)

    put out by the electric company.  They said the reason it is taking so long to go to alternative fuels is they can't decide who should get what money.

    One thing for sure they want us on a grid just like the electric has always been.

    I had hoped I didn't have to depend on 'those' same people for alternative energy.

    We didn't say Wealth Care, we said Health Care

    by relentless on Sun Jul 11, 2010 at 05:44:09 PM PDT

  •  thanks Richard Lyon for the info (0+ / 0-)

    In your series
    hope you take a deeper look at

    1. Power Buy-back plans, for point-source home generation


    1. HVDC, for long distance transporting of Power, with low losses.

    I wondering if these items,
    are on the Radar Screens of traditional power providers?

    many thanks again

    The press is impotent when it abandons itself to falsehood. --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Seymour, 1807

    by jamess on Sun Jul 11, 2010 at 09:05:54 PM PDT

  •  Two sides to every issue... (0+ / 0-)

    For a smart grid decision that looks at the issues with concern for consumers (while still recognizing the value of the technology), folks should read the recent decision out of Maryland.  Here it is: (warning: pdf).

    The MD Public Services Commission denied a smart grid proposal by Baltimore Gas & Electric because it put  too much risk on customers, with too little return.  

    While the issue is interesting and necessary, the utilities are looking out for their own interests, not for yours.  Effective regulation is necessary

    Attention California voters: Please vote NO on Prop. 16

    by mwk on Sun Jul 11, 2010 at 09:19:39 PM PDT

    •  Smart Grids (0+ / 0-)

      Are essential to renewable generaion optimization.

      They are useful to improve untilization of conventional power generation systems by leveling demand during high peak consumption periods (summer) and in facillitating power use reduction, but the overarching rationale is to optimize renewable resource capacity utilization to avoid over investment in capacity to manage peak loads.

      "Life immitates art, but takes license." - ko

      by koNko on Sun Jul 11, 2010 at 11:22:58 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Bravo. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Excellent summary. I don't really have much to add, and that is a complement.

    Only one point: as China has discovered, investing too fast in renewables ahead of smart grids limits the generation effecincy (a solvable problem) so it's a good object lesson the US should leverage in building it's own infrastructure. Work smart.

    "Life immitates art, but takes license." - ko

    by koNko on Sun Jul 11, 2010 at 11:10:33 PM PDT

  •  Excellent work (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Thanks to the rescue rangers, I caught this even though I was away all day.

    It's a pity that people didn't get this on the rec list when it had a chance.

    The best way to save the planet is to keep laughing!

    by LaughingPlanet on Mon Jul 12, 2010 at 12:02:44 AM PDT

  •  Bureaucrat cutting AC = Not getting the concept (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Book of Hearts

    One can but imagine how the same people will react when some bureaucrat cuts back their AC on a hot July day.

    The whole concept of a smart grid is that the user should remain in charge, and the grid should adjust within the boundaries of what the user sets.  The user's motivation in setting the boundaries should be that their bill will be lower.

    For example, let's say John wants to charge his electric car.  He's plugging it in at 12:00 AM and needs to drive it at 4:00 PM, and it'll take 3 hours to charge.  In "Stupid Bureaucratic Approach", if there's a shortage during this time, John comes back to his car and finds that it didn't give him the charge that he wanted.  In "Proper, Acceptable Approach", barring brownouts (which are shared equitably**), John will always have his full charge by 4:00, but the grid can do the charging when and how it wants, making use of that extra hour that's available.

    Now, in "Proper, Acceptable Approach", John did give a little bit of flexible time in there, so his rate won't be as high as if he was using these peak hours with no flex.  However, it's not much flex.  Now, if John were to plug in at noon and not ask for his charge to be ready until 7:00 PM, all of the sudden, the grid has a lot more time to mess with.  Since John is being more flexible now, he gets a lower rate.  When John is punching in when he wants his charge by on his smartphone charging app, the rate should show up on his screen.  John should be able to change his charging parameters at any time on his phone, but higher rates will apply (as always) if he tries to rush it.

    Back to AC.  In "Proper, Acceptable Approach", the basic AC usage is simply brought into time-of-use pricing, encouraging John to use his AC less during peak hours, making use of a programmable meter to indicate when he's home.  A smarter meter can have additional features, such as letting him choose to let the power company turn it off when needed (and giving him a credit on his bill each time that they do), or texting him and having him have the option to shut it off temporarily to get that credit.  But the default option must ALWAYS be that the consumer is in charge.  Barring brownouts, what they say goes.

    All the grid should be doing is offering financial incentives for desired behavior, providing information on what that is, and directly controlling devices only within the bounds that the user specified.  The only unauthorized control they should be doing is on things that have no perceptible affect to the user, like small shifts in when refrigerator and freezer compressors run in order to give peaking plants a chance to come online..

    ** -- Brownouts must be shared equitably.  If people who have smart devices and smart meters start getting devices cut off to prevent brownouts while those who don't have them keep their power on, you're going to have very ticked off smart grid users.  And different people have different priorities on what power should be cut to anyway.  In my house during the summertime, for example, you can cut the power to my electronics, lights, refrigerator, washer, dryer, etc, but you'll pry the power from my AC over my heat-stroked dead body.  ;)

    •  Anyone runing AC when they are not home (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Book of Hearts

      Is wasting power.

      Our house rule is no AC until the temp is above 28C and humidity 80% or 32C and 70%, and no more han one AC running in one closed room.

      Below those parameters, natural ventillation and an electric fan work fine and once you aclimate the power savings are significant.

      "Life immitates art, but takes license." - ko

      by koNko on Mon Jul 12, 2010 at 03:22:12 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  useful perspective, thanks! (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      However, since 12-7 PM is a relatively high power usage time in most places, spanning both work hours and evening cooking + TV, and straddling peak air conditioning times, the example of John getting a credit for offering flex during that time when charging his electric car would probably not compensate for the time-of-use-metering differential for using peak-time electricity vs. off-peak.

      What might result in a big bonus for John is the fact that he's plugging in a big battery to the grid during peak hours, and if he can sell some of that capacity back by letting the system drain some of his power during the peak-of-the-peak, he'd be selling high and buying low, potentially getting the rest of his power for free because he is helping prevent the need for construction of, let alone operation of, the most-polluting, most-expensive "peaker" plants that help the system cover those moments of greater demand.

      But yes, intelligence in local as well as system management is paramount: delivering a system that gains and retains the trust of users is the only way to build confidence enough to promote widespread adoption.

  •  SoCal Edison replaced my mechanical meter (0+ / 0-)

    with one of these last year, simply because the cheapskate developer who built my home forty years ago put the panel & meter on the back of the house instead of on the side... and I have two wascally dogs.

    This thing is wireless. I have a wireless network for the household computers. It would be nice if SCE would give me an app that would put my real-time usage and access to stats on my desktop.

    I want a household equivalent to the Honda Prius dashboard display of "your current mileage is..."

    Politicians who promise LESS government only deliver BAD government.

    by jjohnjj on Mon Jul 12, 2010 at 09:40:18 AM PDT

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