In one form or another, we use electricity almost every minute of the day. Our reliance on technology like smartphones and computers continues to increase, and so too does our consumption of this valuable resource. The increased demand and push for cleaner energy calls for a long overdue modernization of our electrical grid in the US. One method of addressing this challenge is to replace the existing grid with a “smart” grid. Unlike the traditional electrical grid, which only carries electricity from power plants to consumers, a smart grid includes a “two-way” network of communication enabling consumers, operators and automated devices to track energy use data in real-time.
One positive factor of smart grid technology is that individuals can more accurately monitor and manage their energy use by checking their smart meters. Smart meters interact with the grid by sending energy consumption and production data back and forth, allowing consumers a real-time view of their energy use. In addition, smart meters allow utility companies to offer real-time pricing which provides consumers with an incentive to more effectively manage their energy consumption and save money.
Another way that a smart grid can benefit the environment is that renewable energy producers, such as solar plants and wind farms, can safely store or send excess energy back to the grid, improving the production and distribution of clean energy.
Implementing smart grid technology would also create a new job market of energy related products and services. For example, mainstreaming smart grid technology would require advanced energy monitoring software, individuals to install metering infrastructure as well as distribution and substation automation communication services. According to Techrepublic.com, the global market for smart grid related technologies and services will grow from $1.7 billion in 2014 to more than $11.1 billion in 2023; a promising future for the creation of clean energy related products and services.
Although a large-scale smart grid would produce many benefits for energy consumers and producers in the US, it also has its drawbacks.
One challenge is that completely rebuilding the existing electrical grid will be extremely time consuming and expensive. Currently, the federal government has dedicated $4.5 billion in funds to improving the nation’s electrical network; however the estimated cost of replacing the existing infrastructure is between $13 and $50 billion. One alternative suggestion to completely rebuilding the existing grid is to instead install smaller “micro grids” within buildings or local areas to cut down the size, cost and time of updating our energy sources.
Another concern is that the real-time pricing of smart meters may negatively affect particular industries. One example is that institutions, such as hospitals, are not able to change the temperature of their buildings as they must obey health regulations. As a result, institutions such as these will be heavily billed by utility companies, and these expenses may be carried over to consumers.
A third challenge of installing a smart grid is that utilizing the internet to provide real time grid data increases the risk of privacy and security breaches. One simulation found that malware experts could infiltrate one smart meter and spread the virus to 15,000 meters within a day, enabling hackers to remotely shut off power with the click of a button. In a recent article in the Washington Examiner, the chief of the NSA confirmed that China and at least one other country are capable of hacking into US electrical and water infrastructure, potentially causing the failure of these critical systems. These are some of the most serious challenges utility companies, consumers and the government must consider before modernizing our electrical network.
As the demand for more and cleaner energy production, consumption and distribution grows in the US, the issue of revamping our electrical grid will move to the forefront. Although the method for replacing our existing grid is still being debated, it is sure that our electric network must undergo some massive changes as we continue to modernize and energy demands increase.