Congress contemplates upgrading the nation's dumb electricity-delivery infrastructure to a smart grid
Electricity prices are costly, sure, but you know what else is expensive? Power outages. They cost U.S. business at least $50 billion a year, according to Electric Power Research Institute estimates, as computer screens go black, servers stop humming, conveyor belts stop moving, and workers step out for coffee. (By an odd coincidence, InfoWorld's San Francisco office is suffering a power outage as I write this article at my home office in Sacramento. I think I've discovered another benefit to telecommuting.)
It's rather heartening to see that elected officials have taken notice of the problems with the nation's energy-delivery systems, which have proven to be, at times, unreliable (rolling blackouts, anyone?) and unable to meet the nation's ever-increasing demand.
Part of the proposed energy bill from members of Congress calls for the possible development of a countrywide smart electric grid, a system that could result in overall more efficient and reliable electricity service here in the States.
Essentially, a smart grid is an intelligent electricity-delivery system, through which energy suppliers and consumers are all interconnected through a network. Smart meters are installed at homes and business to monitor energy consumption and transmit that information back to energy providers. Energy providers not only have the ability to track energy consumption -- but also to automatically throttle down energy consumption on a granular level when demand gets too high.
For example, participating users -- be they business or home owners -- might agree to have their building's air conditioning systems automatically turned down, or certain lights turned off, during peak hours when the grid is being heavily taxed. That reduces the strain on the grid, thus preventing rolling blackouts and costly downtime.
Preventing unplanned downtime for systems and employees is but one of the benefits of a smart grid. Smart meters are capable of measuring energy consumption all hours of the day, and utilities could set prices according to demand during a given time. Thus, those who wait until after peak hours to perform certain tasks -- be it a consumer turning on the dishwasher or a network admin setting systems to be woken up for patching -- could save some green.