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The future smart grid - today

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The term smart grid is applied to a variety of energy-efficiency and modernization efforts. Whatever the definition, it's often been seen as a concept still in development -- waiting to reach maturity.

DOE-selected projects have helped overcome early challenges to energy innovation and blazed a path for future smart grid breakthroughs.

But while work to modernize the grid will never be complete, the industry has made admiral gains over the past several years. A smattering of smart grid stakeholders gathered in Washington, D.C. last week to discuss and highlight the newest smart grid advances and lay the groundwork for the future.

Policy support produces benefits

A great deal of the conference material focused on efforts to build out the future of the smart grid. But it was an also an opportunity for reflection and a much-needed pat on the back for many in the industry. The conference included a number of status updates on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act's (ARRA) Smart Grid Investment Grant (SGIG) projects.

It's clear that these 99 U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)-selected projects have helped overcome early challenges to energy innovation and blazed a path for future smart grid breakthroughs since becoming available in 2009.

"I have been concerned about knowledge generated from the ARRA projects being lost and taxpayers not getting the value they should. The ISGT conference turned out to be a perfect venue for the DOE to showcase their success in funding these projects through their grant recipients' presentations," said Erich Gunther, Chairman of the DOE's GridWise Architecture Council and IEEE smart grid technical expert.

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Beneath all the technical talk, the ISGT conference was about a common goal: Bringing the valuable functionality and reliability of smart grid to the mass market.
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Effective smart meter deployments and grid upgrades offered some of the most prominent evidence of SGIG success. For example, ConEdison said its $400 million DOE grant significantly sped up its smart grid development. Upgrades included laying 94,000 miles of underground cable and more than 24,000 network transformers. These improvements have reduced the need to travel to outage sites, which is costly in places like Manhattan and Brooklyn, said Aseem Kapur, department manager of the Smart Grid Implementation Group at ConEdison.

Other hot topics centered on optimizing grid integration, most notably around distributed generation and electric vehicles. As electric vehicles grow market share, utilities face new challenges managing load and taking advantage of these resources. Personal solar installations and connected homes are also working their way into the mainstream, creating opportunities for smart grid engineers to help these devices all work together efficiently and reliably.

A smart grid for everyone

Beneath all the technical talk, the ISGT conference was about a common goal: Bringing the valuable functionality and reliability of smart grid to the mass market. Building out a better smart grid is about making customers and businesses' lives easier, especially when it comes to their energy use, said SDG&E's Caroline Winn.

But customer education as a whole remains a barrier to smart grid, noted Patty Durand, executive director of the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative.

"The more consumers know, the more they favor smart grid investments, so there's a big educational lift that needs to take place since awareness is low," she said.

The good news is that much of the technology needed for the modern smart grid is ready today, with the rest not far behind. Utilities continue to invest in these technologies and create a better grid, and 2013 will certainly see a host of new innovations become part of daily smart grid operations.