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"Smart Grid" designed to prevent major blackouts

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Remember that huge blackout in the summer of 2003? 45 million people in the Midwest and Northeast US, as well as 10 million in Canada, lost power. Government and utilities are spending billions of dollars on what's called a "Smart Grid," in part, so we don't have more large scale blackouts. But there's a lot more to the emerging system. Julie Grant has more.

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Julie Grant
Reporter and Producer

Transcript: Julie Grant, March 23, 2010

Right now, electric power in the U.S. is generated by a relatively small number of very big power plants. That power is transmitted all over the place.

But this set up is increasingly running into problems. The demand for power is skyrocketing: from big American houses and TVs, air conditioners and computers. The grid is struggling to keep up. And it’s not always succeeding.

There have been more - and more massive - blackouts in recent years than in previous decades.

Universities, private laboratories, and utility companies are all looking at different aspects of making the electric grid smarter.

Chris Eck is spokesman for First Energy, which provides power in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. He says there are so many ideas on how to improve the nation’s electrical system.

Eck: Part of the challenge is defining the smart grid. I think there are different opinions ou there about what it will and won't include.

The Department of Energy says the smart grid will change the electric industry’s entire business model. Instead of being a centralized, producer-controlled network – it will transform to become decentralized and consumer-interactive.

Ken Laparo works on these kinds of issues at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. He says a smart grid will get consumers more involved in planning their energy use.

Laparo: Right now, you have no idea what a killowarr hour is costing you in Cleveland on March 10 at 8:30 in the evening.

Laparo says most of us just look at those little bars on our electric bills that show how much energy we used that month. But he says it doesn’t really mean much to us.

But companies are developing all kinds of products: smart plugs, smart thermostats, smart appliances, that tell you how much energy is being used – so customers can decide the best ways to reduce energy use – and to reduce their bills.

Utility companies might start charging more at peak energy times of day – and they will communicate those shifting prices to “smart” consumer devices in real time.

Laparo says these small slices of energy savings might not seem like a lot:

Laparo: But it's the cummulative effect of what everybody is doing, no matter how small it is. When you add it up over millions of customers over days and weeks and months and years that the overall opportunity is huge.

But there’s still a lot to be done. A decentralized system is going to need better communication. If every programmed refrigerator is constantly trying to optimize its energy usage based on the power's moment-to-moment price — the electricity system will also have to be an information system. Each smart appliance and home meter, will have to be able to communicate with the energy companies.

If it works, this type of communication could help utility companies predict an overload on the power system – like the one that started the black out in 2003. Utilit ies today just predict when usage will be high. But a smart grid, they will actually know how high it is in real time.

Utilities will also have a better ability to fix problems in the system before they get out of control. This is what some researchers call the Holy Grail of the Smart Grid. In the short term, they see consumers learning more about saving energy, and communicating that to the power companies. But in the long term, they want to be able to sense and manage the grid, to avoid those debilitating blackouts.

The 2003 blackout started because there was a high demand for power in one Ohio town. When that one generating plant went off line – it tried to get power from another plant, and overloaded the next plant, setting off a cascade of outages. More than 100 power plants shutdown that day.

First Energy spokesman Chris Eck says a smart grid could help prevent blackouts.

Eck: As it is now, you might know you have circuits out and you have to send crews out to physically for a problem with these lines. With a smart grid, with enough sensors and feedback communication, you might be able to pinpoint before they get to the site. And they can isolate the problem and fix it quicker.

For The Environment Report, I'm Julie Grant.

Copyright © 2010. The Regents of the University Of Michigan. Used with permission.

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