The Smart Grid – When is it Smart? Part 1

Last week I led a Smart Grid session at the Green Software Unconference that explored a wide range of topics from electricity generation to consumption.  In Silicon Valley, as in many other high tech centers around the globe, people are extremely interested in learning how they can contribute their talents, experience, and enthusiasm to a common objective:  ensuring that we design and deploy the right technologies, services, markets, and processes to reduce carbon emissions from the electricity supply chain.  We discussed that the Smart Grid isn’t just one monolithic grid, but a combination of interconnected grids, technologies, services, and solution providers.  

What is the Smart Grid?  The short definition of the Smart Grid from the Smart Grid Dictionary states that that it is a bi-directional electric and communication network that improves the reliability, security, and efficiency of the electric system for small to large-scale generation, transmission, distribution, and storage. 

When will we have a Smart Grid?  That was a great question asked at this Unconference.  With so many technologies, regulations, market incentives and processes to deploy that are specific to generation, transmission, distribution, or storage, the answer depends on what part of the grid you are looking at.   

Let’s deconstruct the Smart Grid into the components of generation, transmission, distribution, and storage to give you as a consumer some simple rules of thumb that allow you to assess when you do have a Smart Grid delivering electricity and information to your home.


We need more energy, and we need more clean energy – meaning it does not contribute Greenhouse Gas emissions or GHGs.  Dirty coal is not the answer, and when clean coal technology includes clean coal removal techniques, it could be a possible source of electricity production in a Smart Grid.        

Let’s take nuclear out of the discussion right away.  It’s a clean fuel, so why?  Because of NIMBY and BANANA.

NIMBY, as you probably know, means Not In My Back Yard.  BANANA means Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone.  These are common reactions of people to just about anything, including something as basic as placement of a cellular phone tower or a transmission line.  Realistically, do you expect to see nuclear plants built in the USA?  I don’t, and neither do many state regulatory agencies, which is why they are promoting clean renewables. 

Natural gas is cleaner than coal, but still emits GHGs.  So, as much as possible we want to steer clear of any fuels that get in the way of that overall goal of reducing our carbon footprint.  That leaves us with hydro, solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass.  These do have drawbacks too, ranging from concerns that geothermal production may induce earthquakes to bird kills from wind turbines to land allocation for solar or biomass production.  However, these are issues to be overcome with technology and risk mitigation research because they don’t spew carbon dioxide. 

Therefore, a key Smart Grid objective is to use more and cleaner sources of electricity generation in existing and new power plants across the national and regional interconnected grids. 

Smart Grid Rule #1.  As a consumer, you know you have a Smart Grid when you have choices about the type of energy you want to purchase at a price that is acceptable to you – you can buy pure solar or wind-produced electricity, a mixture of any clean energies, or just the cheapest electricity regardless of production type at the time you wish to use it.