What is the smart grid?

Governments, energy companies and tech firms all talk about the “smart grid” a lot, but what exactly is the smart grid?

Google that question, and you’ll quickly find more than 1 million results, including definitions from the US Department of Energy, its spin-off website SmartGrid.gov and Wikipedia. All, though, are describing essentially the same thing: an energy infrastructure with built-in, automated and real-time or near-real-time sensing, monitoring, measurement, communications and control capabilities.

What the smart grid does, on the utility side, is make it possible to manage energy demands and issues not only at the consumer level but at every key point along the transmission and distribution network.  Another benefit is demand response, in which energy users reduce or switch off non-essential energy-using devices during times of peak demand to reduce stress on the grid.

On the user side, the smart grid would give people and businesses insight into how much energy they’re using and when. It would also enable them to easily and automatically control their consumption through web- and smartphone-based portals, managing tasks like — for example — automatic scheduling of dishwashing for times when electricity prices are lowest.

The smart grid is often called the “energy internet,” and it’s a useful (though not 100-percent accurate) analogy. Essentially, it connects every element of the energy grid much in the same way the internet connects every networked computer, so all the parts can send and receive information from one another. and control and manage applications. It probably won’t end up being as entertaining as the ‘net, but the potential benefits — in energy, money and carbon emissions saved; improved resilience; better support for green energy and electric cars; etc. — could be equally huge over time.

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