The Watt? is an interactive energy primer aimed at making the complicated and completely non-intuitive world of energy use a bit more understandable to laypeople.
I wholeheartedly support any effort to make this stuff make more sense. In the course of researching my book, Before the Lights Go Out, I stumbled across tons of extremely important information that was basic "duh" knowledge to energy experts—but not to you, me, and everybody actually doing the decision making on energy issues.
I ended up focusing on the story of the electric grid, how it works today, and where it might be headed in the future. But there's no way I could cover everything. The Watt? promises to fill in some of those gaps—fleshing out the details on everything from physics and terminology, to economics and technology. There will be some really lovely-looking charts and graphics, guest "speakers" embedded into the e-book, and lots of other cool surprises.
The team behind this is trying to raise funds now through Kickstarter. Their deadline is in 18 hours. If you want to better understand energy systems (or you want to help other Americans better understand them) I suggest making a donation.
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.