The idea of a national smart electrical grid gained some attention on Sunday when Louisana's Mercedes Benz Superdome plunged into darkness and stayed that way for over half an hour. A smart power grid would help with much more than Superbowl blackouts and, while the costs are high, the benefits are huge. Nationwide, the costs of power blackouts are rising. A Feb. 4 Washington Post article says that incidents rose between 2005 and 2009 when 349 power outages occurred in the United States and 50,000 people were affected. There were only 149 outages between 2000 and 2004. Today's problems with the national power grid cost about $150 billion per year.
The solution is not an easy one. It would take a very costly and major national infrastructure improvement at a cost of about $476 billion over the next 20 years. The costs would ultimately be borne by the consumer, possibly with better power management and lower energy consumption as a result. But what are the components of a smart grid?
Two components of a smart grid are digital controls and applications that can cost upwards of $17 billion to $24 billion a year. The major work toward a smart grid involves upgraded substations, lines, poles, meters, billing and communication systems. Almost all of the work and costs would be borne by the power retailers and passed on to consumers.
A smart power grid can check power equipment performance and report several times a minute, where equipment and transformers on a traditional power grid might be manually checked once a year. Traditional equipment goes offline with no warning while smart power monitors can set off alarms when conditions warrant. This allows preventive action instead of damage repair during extended outages.
Smart power grids also allow the most efficient use of power, saving money and energy in the process. One example is better management of excess power that is contributed to the grid by privately owned solar panels on homes and businesses. Even electric cars can release excess energy back into the grid at charging stations. With 10 million hybrid cars expected to be on the roads by 2030, this is no small benefit.
It is unlikely that a national smart grid will be coming soon, but several states and municipalities, are upgrading local grids with smart energy systems. These systems allow operators to identify, control and even prevent blackouts like the one that stopped the Super Bowl game in its tracks.