Smart Grid Update

By Bridget McCrea

A look at how far the national smart grid has come and how far it still has to go

Utility companies have historically had to send workers out to gather the intelligence needed to provide electricity to users. After reading meters, inspecting broken equipment, and/or measuring voltage, those users reported back to the utilities that, in turn, took the steps necessary to start or restore power. Fast-forward to 2013 and while many of the devices used to deliver electricity still aren’t automated, the number of modernization options is growing at a fairly rapid pace.

One of the drivers behind utility automation is the “smart grid.” Defined by the U.S. Department of Energy as a class of technology used to bring utility electricity delivery systems into the 21st century via computer-based remote control and automation. These systems are made possible by two-way communication technology and computer processing that has been used for decades in other industries.

According to the DOE, smart grid technologies are currently being used on electricity networks, from the power plants and wind farms all the way to the consumers of electricity in homes and businesses. They offer many benefits to utilities and consumers – mostly seen in improvements in energy efficiency on the electricity grid and in the energy users’ homes and offices.

Uncle Sam is behind at least some of the smart grid’s progress. In December 2007, Congress passed, and the president approved, Title XIII of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA). EISA provided the legislative support for DOE’s smart grid activities and reinforced its role in leading and coordinating national grid modernization efforts.

In its Multi-Year Program Plan for 2010-2014, the DOE laid out its short- and long-term smart grid goals. By 2030, for example, it envisions a power grid that has “evolved into an intelligent energy delivery system that supports plug-and-play integration of dispatchable and intermittent low-carbon energy sources, and provides a platform for consumer engagement in load management, national energy independence, innovation, entrepreneurship, and economic security.”

Breaking Down the Barriers
Jesse Berst, chairman at Smart Cities Council in Seattle, says government stimulus funding and a focus on the use of smart meters fueled “explosive smart grid growth” of roughly 20 to 25 percent annually over the last two years. “It’s still growing at a healthy pace,” says Berst, “but more in the 8-12 percent range, depending on which sub-sector you’re looking at.”

In North America, Berst says smart grid activity has moved away from smart meters and is now focused more on improvements to system reliability – mainly as a result of natural disasters like Hurricanes Irene and Sandy. Distribution automation and substation automation, for example, have both moved to the forefront as utilities seek to increase network efficiencies and reduce levels of lost electricity. “Everyone is really focused on how to modernize the grid,” says Berst, “and make it more resilient and reliable.”

Berst says smart grid progress continues to be blocked or slowed by outmoded policies that vary from state to state. “It’s a confusing patchwork that is difficult for utility companies to manage with such a jumble of conflicting regulations,” says Berst. American Electric Power, for instance, operates in 14 states and has to file with 14 different regulatory groups – many of which are using 100-year-old policies and ideas. “The ideas may have been good back in the middle of the last century,” Berst points out, “but they’re not right for the digital era.”

Berst says he’d like to see more traction on the consumer side of the smart grid, which has lagged in recent years. The concept of installing smart thermostats, load switches (on water heaters), and home energy monitors hasn’t caught on as quickly as similar strategies have in the commercial space, where such investments are often easier to justify. “Most of the consumer side of the smart grid is still in the pilot phase,” Berst explains.

Location is also dictating smart grid progress. “You have to hop around because it’s largely hit-or-miss right now,” says Berst, who points to Ontario, California, and certain regions of Texas as the areas where smart grid progress has picked up over the last couple of years. “We’re also seeing activity in certain Duke Energy territories,” says Berst, “but not in all of them.”

The Crystal Ball
Looking ahead, Berst says the smart grid industry is “settling down into a mature phase,” in the wake of a number of related mergers and acquisitions over the last few years. “We saw a number of giant companies buying out new, innovative firms and bringing them into the fold. We’ll see more of that,” says Berst, who expects the smart grid to eventually become a solid, growth industry that sees positive expansion year-over-year.

“The main driver going forward will be reliability and the realization that we are all very vulnerable to natural disasters, terrorism, cyber-crime, and cyber-attacks from overseas,” says Berst. “To protect ourselves from these threats, we’ll need to install more smart grid devices.”

McCrea is a Florida-based writer who covers business, industrial, and educational topics for a variety of magazines and journals. You can reach her at or visit her website at

Tagged with

Comment on the story

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *