Smart devices are showing up in homes across the country — from controllers like Amazon Echo and Google Home to smart thermostats, garage door openers and everything in between. Even the power grid is starting to transition to smart technology, even though most people don’t realize it. What is the smart grid, and how can transitioning to it benefit society?

What Is the Smart Grid?

The power grid hasn’t changed much in the last few decades. However, new smart technology has enabled power companies to start modernizing the grid— literally making it smarter through the use of new technologies. The goal of a smart grid is to improve reliability — reducing power outages, restoring service faster when there are outages and lessening the impact of natural disasters when they occur.

Smart Grid [Image - Siemens]

Three primary things make the smart grid possible — technology that enables two-way communication, advanced control systems and computers with more processing power than even a decade ago.

Smart Grid Benefits

How can the transition to a smart grid benefit society? Three primary benefits are currently being explored, including:

  • Reliability — Power outages are an inconvenience at best, and dangerous at worst. The smart grid can help cut down on the number of power outages, as well as reduce how long the power is out. It’s also useful for notifications — a smart electric meter can notify the utility company the power is out long before a homeowner picks up the phone to report the outage. The faster the power company learns about an outage, the sooner they can address the problem.
  • Money and energy consumption — For many people, their electricity is the most expensive bill they pay each month. Smart meters allow the power company to monitor usage more effectively and in real-time. Not only does this help the power company lower their number of peak demand periods, especially during hot or cold weather, but it also gives them the information they need to help each household reduce their energy usage, saving homeowners more money in the long run.
  • Environmental protection — Traditional power generation relies on the burning of fossil fuels, which creates a lot of pollution. Smart grids have two benefits here — first, by better regulating power use and generation, the smart grid could reduce power-related air pollution by as much as 30 percent. Second, it will make it easier to integrate green power options like solar and wind.

There are plenty of potential benefits of integrating, but what about the risks?

Smart Grid Risks

As with any networked system, there is always the risk of incursion by an outside party — which is part of why the grid has remained offline for so long. Transitioning to a smart grid will be an exercise in risk management for all involved. A vulnerable system could give a hacker the tools to shut down the power for an entire city or state, depending on how far they make it into the system before someone stops them. Even seemingly innocent information, such as home power usage data, could be dangerous if it falls into the wrong hands.

There are some technological issues as well — problems with RF signal propagation, especially in rural areas, could make it difficult or impossible to correctly monitor power levels and usage. Registering new devices on the grid could cause problems with built-in security. Real-world conditions — weather, extreme temperatures, etc. — could also affect the grid in previously unforeseen ways.

Smart Grids Around the World

The United States isn’t the only country exploring the idea of digitizing the power grid. China has set aside the largest budget to invest in creating a smart grid in their country, with the U.S., Japan, South Korea and Spain next in line.

Each country has unique reasons for working toward a smart grid. The United States is focusing on economic stimulus and grid modernization, while Japan is focusing more on introducing and implementing renewable energy technologies. Europe, on the other hand, is focusing primarily on reducing power-related greenhouse gases, as well as creating a single wholesale energy market.

While we haven’t managed to adopt smart grid technology yet, most First World countries are on the right track. Smart grids can make it easier for power companies to offer savings to their customers, and allow us to break free of traditional fossil-fuel burning power sources in favor of greener and environmentally friendly alternatives.

Cybersecurity will be a big issue for smart grids, especially once they start making appearances across the country. If we implement them intelligently, they could shape the future the same way the Internet did — or the telephone or the rail. These moves toward a smart grid could be the biggest advance of the 21st century thus far, shaping our future in ways we haven’t even imagined yet.