What is a smart grid and why should you care?

If you only have the vaguest notion of what a "smart grid" actually is, don't feel bad. This is one of those energy buzzwords that confuses a lot of people. Part of the problem is that utility companies don't often do a very good job of communicating this stuff. They tell you it's good. They say something hand-wavey about the Internet. And then they pretty much leave you to fend for yourself.

The other part of the problem: "Smart grid" is one word that refers to more than one thing. A smart grid is actually lots of different technologies. They're related. But they do different jobs in different ways, and even one tool might have different levels of functionality that apply to it. That fact is really clear when you visit a smart grid research laboratory, as I did earlier this week at the Colorado State University.

The school's Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory houses a little micro-grid, where electricity can be generated, used, and stored in ways that model the workings of the real-life grid. The smart grid technologies the laboratory is used to study apply to every part of that system—smart grid is part of generation, it's part of how electricity is moved around, it's part of how we consume electricity, and it's part of how we balance supply and demand and avoid blackouts. In other words: This seemingly vague and esoteric concept is actually closely tied to practical, day-to-day realities.

Yesterday, I got to go on NPR's Marketplace Tech Report to talk about two smart grid technologies that you're likely to get some hands-on experience with in the near future.

Today’s electrical grid, [Koerth-Baker] 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.”

Listen to the whole interview at Marketplace Tech Report.

Learn more about smart grids and how our electric system work by reading my book, Before the Lights Go Out.

Image: Looking down into Colorado State University's smart grid laboratory. Image taken by Dan Bihn.


  1. I used the name “smart grid” for a failed project back in college; it involved an interactive house. Sensors would detect whether a human was in a room, and adjust the electricity (turn it on/off from the breaker), lighting, and climate control. We could never get it to work; it was the early 90s, and the technology just wasn’t up to our needs. My professor was hilarious, though; she said “wow, that’s some Jetsons shit, guys”. I could have been another Edison.

    Anyway. Sorry! Did you you want fries with that?

  2. It’s wrong that I immediately thought you were talking about DataGrids. I desperately need to stop writing code for IT shops…

  3. I brought up smart grids with some friends.

    One, who apparently gets all his information from Fox, went into a rant about how it’s designed to arbitrarily pull the power from ordinary people’s homes.

    That was the point of the whole exercise, as far as he was concerned. End of discussion.


    1. I’ve mostly heard this kind of talk from leftist Californians for whom the words “Pacific Gas & Electric” are a pretty intense trigger.

  4. “…Today’s electrical grid, [Koerth-Baker] says, is something of a high-wire act…”
    Or, as a colleague of mine likes to put it: 
    Trying to control power flows actively on the grid is like driving down the highway at 60mph in reverse – without a rear-view mirror.

  5. Just as long as the “smartness” is decentralized…because the last thing we need is to create something that centralizes power even more than now.

  6. As a battery backup sales/design tech, I am really interested in how home battery backup systems are going to participate in a smart grid.  There’s a really cool one being developed in the San Diego area that will use inverter chargers, a battery bank and PV in every home, all linked to a control center that will work to smooth out demand spikes and pay consumers for their batteries when they are drawn down.  We bid on the project, but unfortunately they went with a higher cost but local Californian company.

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