Why we need to build a smart grid — fast

Molly Wood Apr 12, 2012

Electricity and the infrastructure needed to support it are ideas that are kind of easy to ignore. That’s because you don’t really think about them much unless something goes wrong. As long as the lights come on when I flip the switch, I don’t give a lot of thought as to where the electricity comes from or how well it’s managed in my house or my city. Sorry, by that point my attention has been diverted to whatever just got illuminated in the room.

Still, energy and where to find it for an increasingly energy-hungry world is going to be an issue moving forward, and so will be the management of the energy we have. A lot of smart people in America are going to need to address the ongoing issue of energy in a really smart way. Maggie Koerth-Baker says that means getting serious about building a smart grid, a power grid that is constantly gathering and processing information.

Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net and author of the new book “Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us.” “This isn’t just about what’s good for hippies and granola types,” she says, “it’s about updating our technology for the 21st century. We’re working with stuff that really hasn’t had a lot of changes done to it since the 1970s.”

Today’s electrical grid, she says, is something of a high-wire act. “The grid, in order to function, has to have an almost perfect balance between electric supply and electric demand,” says Koerth-Baker. “And, there are people that work in these centers all around the U.S., working 24 hours, seven days a week to make sure that happens, and they have to work on a minute-by-minute basis, so the smart grids are really about helping them maintain that balance.”

And what exactly are those people watching for?

“They’re watching how much electricity people are using, and they’re watching electric supply, so, how much electricity is being produced by power plants and also now by people on their roofs and things like that. “

If the demand and supply fall out of balance, you get blackouts.  “The state of Texas actually learned that last winter,” she says. “They had some cold snaps they weren’t expecting. And when that happened, people used more electricity than the grid controllers had anticipated, and also the cold snap froze some pipes at coal fired power plants, and so you had less supply at the same time, and they got blackouts.”

A smarter grid would mean information shared by all parts of the system, even the meter at your house.

“Right now, those meters are read once a month by a guy who drives by your house with something that’s the equivalent of a walkie-talkie,” she says, “and in order to participate in the grid as a good citizen rather than as a squatter, you’re going to have to have this be something that can communicate with those controllers every few minutes and tell them how much energy you’re producing, how much energy you’re using.”

In your home, this might mean your fridge or your air conditioner shutting off for a few minutes here and there when the grid needs to balance out. Of course, that won’t come cheap. “We’ll have to have new appliances because these aren’t just chips you can insert into the refrigerator you already own, says Koerth-Baker, “It’s a whole new refrigerator.”

According to Koerth-Baker, if we don’t smarten up our grid, we’ll see more blackouts, more headaches.

“As where we get sources of energy from change, as demand continues to go up, we’re having more of these problems, and it puts us at risk for everything from weather events to terrorism. We need to have more stability built in.”

Also in this program, a kind of odd segment. We start off talking about the new functionality at the online answer engine Wolfram Alpha that details the quantitative breakdown of all of Shakespeare’s plays. But when that topic gets a little abstract and esoteric, we shift to a 3D chocolate printer

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.