It will take much money and effort to create a nationwide “smart grid” — a modernized electricity grid that is finely monitored and run by state-of-the-art cyber-systems — but the eventual economic benefit to the nation could approach $2 trillion, a national expert on the smart grid concept said Tuesday at the University of Toledo.
The world is seeing the early stages of a new industrial-Internet revolution wherein physical systems, like the electric grid or natural gas pipeline system, are merging with cyber technology to create cyber-physical systems, said George Arnold, national coordinator for smart grid interoperability with the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Techology.
Eventually, these mergers will allow more efficient control of key physical systems, creating substantial savings for companies and consumers alike. But there’s a long way to go, said Mr. Arnold, who spoke to a group of university faculty and engineering students.
For one thing, the electric grid, named the “signature engineering achievement of the 20th century” in 2003 by the National Academy of Engineering, is still “remarkably similar” to how it was when created in the 1880s, Mr. Arnold said. “The basic system needs to be modernized to meet the needs of the 21st century,” he said.
If it became a smart grid, its efficiency could generate nearly $2 trillion in savings by 2030 and its reliability would reduce power outages that now cost the country $80 billion annually, Mr. Arnold said.
A smart grid also helps sustainability issues by efficiently managing renewable energy such as wind, water, and solar, Mr. Arnold said.
A smart grid uses a plethora of new monitoring devices, technologies, and methods, including home smart meters to measure power usage, grid sensors to monitor power flow, power plants distributed in a more logical pattern, and energy management systems. About $9 billion has been spent so far on smart grid technology, mostly meters, but estimates say to fully implement the smart grid would cost $338 billion.
As a smart grid develops, it is important that open standards be used for new technology so that the entire grid can integrate and communicate, Mr. Arnold said. That may require utilities to give up proprietary technologies in a move to an open standard, he added.
Fortunately, a smart grid was a goal of the Energy Independence and Security Act, enacted in 2007.
The government has been the main force in promoting a smart grid, but Mr. Arnold said fostering several private-public partnerships may push industry to eventually take the lead with the government merely encouraging smart grid development.
A key issue as smart grid projects go forward is security.
A fear, Mr. Arnold said, is that as the grid becomes more computer and Internet-based, it is vulnerable to hackers who could bring it down or gain access to facilities.
“The good news is we are worried about it and are working on it,” Mr. Arnold said. The government and private sector have been proactive in spotting vulnerable areas early so that as a smart grid grows and expands, data and systems will remain secure, he said.
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