The Smart Grid – It’s For More than Electrons

The Smart Grid has traditionally been used to describe the electrical grid 2.0.  The distinctions between the traditional electrical grid, or version 1.0, and the Smart Grid cover the bidirectional flow of electricity and communications.  We need to extend our thinking about the smart grid to add distributed intelligence and communications to other parts of the developed infrastructure – water and waste water, gas and oil pipelines, and even our transportation systems.  Doing so will help us engineer the most sustainable and cost-effective solutions.  

The relationship of electricity and water is particularly intertwined – it takes electricity to move and treat water, and water is quite often used to make electricity.  For instance, the state of California moves a great deal of water from the northern part of the state to the south.  Transporting one acre-foot of water – the typical amount consumed by two families of four in a year – requires 3000 kWh per year.  One acre-foot of water (the amount of water covering 1 acre to a depth of 1 foot) equals 326,000 gallons and weighs 2.7 million pounds.  The California Energy Commission (CEC) figures that 20% of the state’s electricity and 30% of its natural gas consumption are dedicated to water transport or treatment.  A five minute faucet flow uses approximately the same energy as letting an incandescent 60-watt light bulb burn for 14 hours. 

There is a great deal of attention given to the aging electrical grid infrastructure, and with good reason.  The current electrical grid has reduced reliability and transmission losses that cost the economy dearly.  We need to fund massive investment in the water infrastructure for similar reasons.  The water systems in many cities and municipalities in the USA are characterized by aging water pipes that leak and are at risk for full collapse.  The waste of potable water through this unreliable infrastructure cannot be sustained for much longer – especially in high growth regions where current water resources are not sufficient for continued consumption rates. 

The water infrastructure needs basic upgrading to stop the leaks, but it also needs sophisticated sensors to track and measure water use.  Just like we use smart meters to provide much more detailed and instantaneous information about electricity use, we need better feedback mechanisms that communicate and analyze water use.  Information leads to awareness and knowledge, and efficient use And that’s the crux of another problem.  We can add clean renewable sources of electricity to the grid in the form of solar, wind, and geothermal production to accommodate growing populations.  We can’t make more water – we can only use and reuse the water that is on the planet.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s WaterSense site, reducing water use has definite positive impacts on the environment and economy.  Intelligent use of water lets us reduce the need for investments in new infrastructure and reduces the strain on the current, aging infrastructure.  We talk about energy efficiency as the low hanging fruit in Smart Grid discussions, and we need to view water efficiency in the same light, and add intelligent devices and more communications capabilities to optimize this infrastructure as we are already doing for the electrical Smart Grid.