Policy makers in Japan were taking a hard look at smart grid technology even before last spring’s earthquake and tsunami and the resulting leaks at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Now, they are studying smart grids even more intensely. When Nikkei Business Publications decided to organize the first World Smart Cities Forum, the group chose Austin as the location for the event. Austin is recognized worldwide as a “smart city” when it comes to energy. Its Pecan Street pilot program, which will bring interactive energy delivery to hundreds of homes, has attracted $25 billion in public and private funds, and Austin Energy is the nation’s largest seller of green power (energy from renewable sources.)
Today’s forum highlighted and delineated some of this country’s best thinking on the subject of smart grids. Smart grids are energy delivery systems that use wires and computer chips to enable two-way communication and remote control. Telecom industry veteran Dr. George Arnold is the National Coordinator for Smart Grid Interoperability within the US Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standard and Technology. His keynote address put the national effort to develop smartgrids into a global and historical perspective. He reminded his audience that most of the technical achievements of the last century rested on the backbone of what has been called “the supreme engineering achievement of the 20th century” – the electric grid. But in this country, he says the grid looks very similar to the way it looked 100 years ago. In addition, half of US coal plants are more than 40 years old and most substation transformers are also that old.
Arnold said that the estimated investment needed to modernize and expand the grid is $1.5 to $2 trillion. He said that a smart grid has the potential to allow our country to continue to have power without spending so much to replace these aging assets. This is because interactive systems that allow users to monitor and control their energy use will mean that not all these plants and substations will be needed. Right now, the U.S. electric grid operates at 50% of capacity, on average, because it is built to handle peak demands. By giving people tools to better manage their energy use, those peak demands can be reduced and distributed.
Austin’s power grid attracted national attention earlier this year when a cold snap led to rolling blackouts. Natural gas pipes froze, and Texas Gas was forced to implement blackouts to conserve limited resources. But the gas company did not have enough information to realize immediately when the blackouts effected natural gas pumps in Austin, meaning that even less gas was available and even more blackouts were needed. Smartgrids use wires and computer chips to enable two-way communication and remote control, so utilities can respond more effectively in unexpected situations, and can control output more efficiently every day.