Toward a Smarter Grid

Transcript & Credits [+] Expand

Toward a Smarter Grid

NARRATOR: Our TVs, computers, and cellphones get smarter and faster every year. But there's one technology we use every day that's in serious need of an upgrade: the electric power grid.

A power grid is a system that produces electricity and moves it where it needs to be, when it needs to be there.

The U.S. power grid was created in the 1890s and has since grown into a nationwide network. And with 5,000 power plants, 200,000 miles of power lines, it’s arguably the largest machine on Earth.

Unfortunately, while many other technologies have gotten smarter, the grid has mostly just gotten bigger.

Now it’s overstretched and unprepared to handle increases in electricity demand as well as a wider variety of power sources.

Which means that blackouts could become a regular occurrence in our future, unless something is done to upgrade the grid… and fast!

One problem with the current grid is that there’s no automated system that reports back to grid operators when problems occur.

For example, say a power line goes down in your neighborhood. Today, a grid operator wouldn’t hear about it until someone called to say their power went out. Delays like this allow problems to get out of control before operators can do anything about them.

A smart grid would have sensors and controls at critical points between power plants and people’s homes. That way, grid operators would learn about problems immediately and could make adjustments in specific areas of the grid almost as quickly.

But making the grid smarter would do more than prevent blackouts. It would also make the grid more efficient.

Sometimes, people use more electricity than the power company expects; and other times there’s more electricity produced from renewable energy sources than we even need.

Smart technologies placed throughout the grid would give grid operators and customers more control over when and where electricity is used, helping balance energy demand and making electricity cheaper.

For example, during times of high demand, the grid might briefly turn down the power on your air conditioner or tap into the energy stored in the battery of your electric car. Or you might set your dishwasher to wash dishes by a certain time and allow the grid to determine the most efficient, and cheapest time, to run the machine.

These adjustments might not sound like much, but if they took place simultaneously in millions of homes across the country, they could really add up. And they would be an important step towards a sustainable energy future.



James Reynolds/Oxford Scientific Video/Getty


Steven Bedard, Writer/Producer
Anna Rothschild, Animator/Editor/Narrator
Scorekeepers Music Library, Music

[-] Collapse

Storing & Moving Energy 2 of 2

Reliability and Efficiency

Which circumstances would a smarter power grid help resolve?