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About this Article
Written by: Michael Elowson
Written on: February 20th, 2010
Tags: energy & sustainability, environmental engineering
Thumbnail by: U.S. Department of Energy
About the Author
Michael Elowson majored in Chemical Engineering with an Environmental focus at the Viterbi School of Engineering at the University of Southern California. His studies in sustainability sparked his interest in Smart Grid development.
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Volume XIII Issue I > Better Illuminating our Lives: The Need and Implementation of a Smart Grid
The demand for power in the United States is rising every year, mostly due to population growth and the increasing use of and dependence on electronics. Our current power grid, being nearly a century old, is simply struggling to keep up. The development of a Smart Grid is a necessary improvement for this country’s infrastructure in order to increase its efficiency and reliability while lowering its costs and environmental impact.

Introduction

The United States power grid can easily be considered the largest interconnected machine on Earth. For nearly a century, our electrical infrastructure has been providing reliable power to Americans. Without it, many aspects of our lives that we take for granted would not be possible, including banking, communications, appliances, traffic signals, and the myriad of electronics we use for work and play. “Blackouts,” or temporary failures of the grid, have dire consequences, including a halt in industrial production, food spoilage, and the inability to use cell-phones or credit cards. Up until now, our nation’s power grid has been incredibly reliable, yet its stability is now becoming threatened. With the rapidly increasing population and the scope of our electronics, we are asking more of the grid than ever before. In fact, it is estimated that the United States energy demand will grow by 30% in the next ten years [1], resulting in unprecedented stress that our current grid will not be able to handle.
In order for our electrical infrastructure to remain alive and well, the development of a “Smart Grid” is of the utmost importance. In essence, a Smart Grid is an automated electrical delivery system that is able to process and transmit information on the current usage of energy throughout the entire grid. The possible benefits of such advancement for humankind are astounding. By implementing Smart Grid technology, we can save billions of dollars annually while greatly improving the efficiency, reliability, and environmental impact of our current electricity usage. The necessities and technology involved in developing a Smart Grid in the United States, as well as current steps and roadblocks regarding its implementation, are all important to explore.

The Current Power Grid in the United States

U.S. Department of Energy
Figure 1: Our existing national power grid consists of three main components: generation plants, transmission systems, and distribution systems.
Though our nation’s power grid is an incredibly complex array of plants and lines, it is made up of three main components: generation plants, transmission systems, and distribution systems (Fig. 1). In the United States, there are over 9,200 generation plants creating over 1,000,000 megawatts of capacity, as well as 300,000 miles of transmission systems and distribution systems [2]. All three of these components utilize three-phase AC currents in order to effectively operate transformers and minimize line loss over long distances. After being generated, the three-phase power exits the generator and enters a transmission substation, where large transformers convert the generator’s voltage to an extremely high level, typically 155,000-765,000 volts. After traveling great distances, voltage is lowered at a distribution substation to standard line voltage, which is usually 7200 volts. From there, a bus splits power and sends it off to its many destinations. Upon reaching a service destination, the voltage is stepped down one last time to a required service voltage, and power becomes readily accessible [3].