Solar and the Smart Grid

IMG 6292 Solar and the Smart Grid

Perhaps as you’ve done your research into going solar, you’ve heard mention of the so-called “Smart Grid” and the challengesand opportunities it presents. Such a broad term can be confusing,however (and perhaps even bring to mind visions of a Terminator-esque future). So we’ll give you the low down on the Smart Grid, and how an investment in a solar powered home will make you a part of the next generation of electricity users.

For being such a crucial part of our national infrastructure, ourcurrent electrical grid is shockingly antiquated. It’s been around forover a century (you’d probably laugh at the prospect of owning acomputer that’s more than a few years old), and requires literallyround-the-clock surveillance by teams of engineering experts to makesure its centralized, generator-controlled network provides thenecessary gigawatts of electricity used by American households andbusinesses.
So far, we haven’t seen much in the way of improvement, either. For while hundreds of thousands of high-voltage transmission linescrisscross the US, less than a thousand miles of new interstatetransmission have been built since 2000. This lack of investment leadsto blackouts and power quality issues that cost American businesses anestimated $100 billion per year. Simultaneously, the current grid doesalmost nothing to focus on efficiency improvements, environmentalimpact, and customer control… not to mention the security threat of such a fragile system. 
The next step will be the dramatic, resource-intensive (i.e. around 1.5 trillion dollars!) revamping of our electrical grid to build asystem that is more reliable, nimble, and responsive to our evolvingenergy needs. It will require the combination of new, superconductingpower cables, energy storage devices, and advanced sensors that cancommunicate in real time between generators, transmitters, and endusers. With these components in place, the Smart Grid will be able tosense impending system overloads and reroute power as needed, acceptenergy from any source ranging from dirty coal to clean solar power, and provide stability against natural disasters or any sort of threat tonational security. Of course, given the costs and the current political climate, the wide-scale implementation of the Smart Grid isn’t likely to happen in the near future. 
If you make the choice to go solar, however, you will be pushing us in the right direction. Once your panels have been installed, yourhouse will be equipped with a smart meter that provides real-timefeedback regarding both the electricity you use and the electricity yougenerate. And as Andrew Kin, a home owner in LA, described how having a smart meter affected his energy use: "The other, kind of unexpected thing that happen[ed] is we began to monitor howmuch electricity we were using through these real-time updates in a waywe didn’t when we were just getting monthly bills.  And as a resultwe’ve been using a lot less electricity, driving our bills down evenfurther."
It’s important to realize that universal smart metering is only asmall part of what the future Smart Grid will have to offer (to getbroader perspective, check out the Department of Energy’s Smart Grid microsite, from which most of this article’s data are taken). But the fact thatcurrent solar technology allows utilities to pinpoint customer use inreal time to avoid blackouts, while simultaneously leading to organicreduction in home electricity use on the consumer’s end, seems like apretty, well, smart idea to us.
Photos by David Belden