Paving The Way To A Newer, Smarter Energy Grid

I have previously written about our aging electric infrastructure. Most of the electricity that runs through our energy grid, does

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I have previously written about our aging electric infrastructure. Most of the electricity that runs through our energy grid, does so through lines attached to poles that are more than 50 years old. That alone has caused repeated problems, primarily from weather because our antiquated system can be knocked over by a stiff breeze. Another major flaw is that during our initial build of an interconnected electric grid, we designed it on speed of set up rather than strategically planning when and where would be the best places to build up our system infrastructure. A major case in point is Connecticut, where the electrical substation built in the 1920’s on Long Island Sound was built at sea level. So for the past 95 years, the power fails every time there is a storm surge.

Ever since Westinghouse transmitted power from a Niagara Falls hydropower plant to the city of Buffalo, we have become addicted to electricity. With that addiction for “power on demand,” we have had to discover the most efficient and effective means to deliver electricity safely to the broad public.

Transporting electricity over long distances was much cheaper than creating power generation plant for every single city in America. So we quickly designed a system of poles and wires to transport that energy across the Unite States. Since then, the grid has aged and infrastructure investments have not kept up with the need for more power. In fact, Power failures have tripled since the 1980s.

Since the implementation of providing electricity for every home and business in the United States, the demand for electric power has grown substantially. Meanwhile, the infrastructure required to generate and transport enough electricity to supply this ever growing demand, has failed to keep up with the increase of power consuming devices, both in homes and businesses. Technology will continue to drive the demand for electricity upward at a rapid pace.

The continuous expansion of the electric grid during the past hundred years, has created a haphazard patchwork of poles and wires across the country. Power plants and transmission networks that bring electricity to consumers have not adapted quickly to the way the world is changing around it, primarily due to being shaped by the local, state and federal government entities and the private contractors over the years. The result is no uniformity or efficiency to the national power grid system. Power networks are regulated on the state and regional level, which tends to complicate the issue of the increasing inefficiency of the grid.

Why Our Current Power Grid Is Inefficient

Because our grid is composed mainly of power generation and transmission mechanisms, energy that is produced must be transferred immediately from the generator to the utility that needs the electricity at that moment of time. Grid inefficiency and poor allocation of generation resources directly cause many of the blackouts that have plagued our country over the past quarter century. When a massive amount of power is drawn by a utility in a relatively short period of time, the generator can fail due to the abrupt increase of power that is demanded.

Another issue with our current utility centric system has been consumer’s inability to track the wild fluctuations in electricity prices that can change by the hour. This lack of knowledge prevents consumers from understanding how increased power use during peak times can increase overall utility rates. This is primarily due to the fact that the vast majority of consumer electric meters do not have the ability to gather information on how their energy is used throughout the day, week or month. These factors are propelling energy professionals towards finding real solutions that will actually modernize the grid with newly developed technology, and rely more on states, and even cities to take some of the burden off the federal government.

That is where the Smart Grid comes in

A smart grid is defined by the technology that is being offered by new companies in an attempt to drag our electricity delivery system into the 21st century. This means utilizing computer-based remote control and automation. These systems use two-way communication technology and computer processing. These processes are starting to be used in all phases of the electricity network. Starting with the power plants and wind farms that generate the energy, all the way to the consumers of electricity in homes and businesses. This strategy has offered many new benefits to utilities and consumers who have seen major improvements in energy efficiency from generation plants all the way to the end users’ homes and businesses.

Prior to this technological breakout, utility companies sent employees or contractors out to read physical meters, identify broken equipment and measure the voltage variations. Now there are many options and products available to the electric industry to assist in modernizing it.

The number of applications that can be used on the smart grid once the data communication technology is deployed is growing faster than companies can create them. With this, both the utility and the consumer benefits are limitless. This means enhanced cyber-security, balancing various sources of electricity including hydro, wind and solar power, and even the beginning of populating electric vehicles onto the grid. This smart grid technology is being created and utilized by technology giants like Google and Apple, established communication firms like AT&T, as well as several new, cutting edge technology firms.

Much like the Internet, America’s re-vamped Smart Grid will be controlled by computer automation and equipment armed with new technology that will work in harmony with the electric grid to respond digitally to our country’s rapidly changing electricity demand.

The implementation of a Smart Grid unveils an opportunity to move the energy industry into a new era of reliability and efficiency that will, as a by-product improve both our economic and environmental health.

The featured benefits of the implementation of a Smart Grid are greater efficiency in the transmission of electricity. There will also be a much quicker response to the full restoration of electricity after power disturbances.

This will reduce operations costs for the local utilities, which should ultimately reduce power costs for consumers. The ability to reduce every consumer’s on-peak demand will also help lower electricity rates.

Smart Grid Video

In 2007, Congress passed Title XIII of the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA). More recently, the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved the North American Energy Security and Infrastructure Act of 2015. (known as HR 8). These legislative mandates have been instrumental in propelling us towards improving the grid, and moving towards a smarter infrastructure for the country as a whole.

Research and development has been key in the advancement of the Smart Grid. The development of new technologies and the improvement of tools used in the realm of the transmission, distribution, and storage of energy has dramatically improved  the future of electricity service for consumers.

Utilizing wind turbines, new energy storage technology, and electric cars, we are seeing our new Smart Grid begin to take shape. Now, with localized power generation, along with smart home technologies, we are seeing more and more areas around the country adapt this new form of the Smart Grid.

Local utility companies are implementing more and more smart meters. Consumers are becoming more educated on how they consume energy, which assists grid operators to improve their control over their system. All of these steps are moving us towards the idea of utilizing “microgrids” to strengthen our energy system.

A microgrid is a small-scale power grid that can operate as a stand-alone, or in conjunction with a larger area’s main power grid. The U.S. Department of Energy sees integrating microgrids into the whole power grid nationwide will create “smart cities.” Several utilities have already begun exploring, developing or marketing microgrids themselves. Among those utilities are American Electric Power, Commonwealth Edison, Dominion, Duke Energy, Green Mountain Power, National Grid, Oncor and Southern California Edison

However, the enormous task of tearing down the entire nation’s energy grid will be a daunting and costly task. Like any typical investment, there will be major risk, as well as a major cost. The smart grid will effectively solve all the main issues with our current energy grid. The improved efficiency will save huge amounts of energy from being wasted, all while creating a more stable, safe, and secure power grid.

For that reason, technology leaders are leaning towards the development of microgrids. A microgrid is a small scale power grid that can operate as a stand-alone, or in conjunction with an areas main power grid. This technology is leading to the development of smart cities.

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A smart city, utilizes digital technology and information to improve communications within a populace to enhance the quality and performance of services, reduce costs and increase efficiency. However, smart cities won’t work without microgrids. A smart city would include multiple microgrids, interconnected with the distribution system.

This is a big reason the Department of Energy (D.O.E.) has made microgrids a priority since 2011. The key to integrating microgrids with other smart technologies is a microgrid controller. Several federal research labs are currently working on microgrid research and development. A smart city would be fully managed by a microgrid controller.

Microgrids are often viewed by the public as a collection of small power plants serving a small area of customers. While the wind turbines and solar panels are usually the most recognizable microgrids, it is the microgrid controller that makes the microgrid operate efficiently.

Microgrids began to garner interest after Hurricane Sandy, due to their ability to keep power flowing to hospitals, police and fire departments during an emergency. Now, microgrids are proving they can make the overall energy grid function better. Microgrids can balance demand with multiple generation sources and integrate renewable energy supply with other forms of distributed energy.

How Far Away Are We From Smart Cities?

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There are a handful of cities in the United States like Chicago and Seattle that are already following the blueprint of some of the more successful European cities such as Helsinki and Copenhagen, which have been at the forefront of smart city technology. The D.O.E. believes advanced microgrids will enhance efficiency and increase the use of renewable energy sources. This will not only advance our quest towards smart city infrastructure, but also provide a much-needed relief to our electric grid system that has been slowly crumbling, mainly due to a lack of investment, over the past 50 years.


Without question, the United States has a glaring need to improve the existing energy generation and distribution network. The daunting task of replacing what has been dubbed “the largest machine in the world” will be costly, and it will take a lot of time and ingenuity to properly implement a system that is both efficient as well as effective. With the aid of microgrids providing localized solutions to specific areas, which in turn will lead to more and more cities striving to become smart cities, we appear to be on the right track. Throw into the mix the rapid development of newer and better technology breakthroughs, and we may see this metamorphosis happen in the next generation.

To find out more information about what is happening with the Smart Grid infrastructure in your area, and the new technologies you as a consumer may already have at your fingertips, give us a call to speak with one of our senior energy advisors.

Call us at:

Matt Helland
SVP Customer Relations
North American Energy Advisory


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