What is a smart grid?

Ari Howard

Apr 23, 2021 — 6 min read

Learn how the smart grid will change the way we power our lives.

Photo of power lines

Imagine your dishwasher waiting for non-peak electricity hours to wash your breakfast dishes or your Roomba knowing to power off when rates are the highest. That’s the future of the U.S. electric system.

This may sound like a day in the life of the outer space family in The Jetsons, but this reality is only about a decade away for most of the country. When the smart grid is deployed, it will impact our lives as much as the internet has since its birth in the 80s.

Fiber optic infrastructure and access to broadband service will be the power behind this grid plan. This is one of the many reasons why solving the digital divide is critical. Homes and businesses will need to connect to the power grid in a way never seen before.

Let’s start with the basics

Our electrical grid is how homes and businesses are able to receive electricity from a nearby power plant. The smart grid is an update of the current power system. Considering our electrical grid was built in the 1890s and hasn’t been updated nearly at all since the 1960s, this remodel is a bit overdue.  

The level/amount of electricity and power the world uses today compared to what was used over 50 years ago is significantly greater. Not only are our individual electricity demands greater today, they are also more complex as we continue to invent new technologies and equipment that are also dependent on the electrical grid

These increasing demands are out-dating our current electric system, which is why the smart grid was invented. The smart grid will not only satisfy our current electrical and power needs, but also adapt to our future needs in the most sustainable and efficient way possible. 

Here are some of the greatest features of the smart grid:

  1. Two-way communication – Currently, our electrical grid only permits one-way communication (i.e. electrical signals from the power plant to the home). However, this one-way communication does not allow utility companies to receive information from consumers. A two-way communication system would provide utility companies with the information needed to provide the right amount of energy from the appropriate power source to the correct location. As we continue to embed more sources of energy into our power system to increase sustainability, and as we continue to need an increasing amount of energy for our daily lives, the amount of information utility companies require  from consumers also increases. 
  2. Utilizes renewable energy systems – One of the main reasons why two-way communication is so essential is because of the complexity of renewable energy systems. Renewable energy sources are complex to work with because they are entirely dependent on the weather and/or time of day. A smart grid system would provide the data and automation needed to solely provide renewable energy to its customers whenever possible and to switch to more consistent (but less cost-efficient) energy sources, such as natural gas, nuclear and coal, for when the renewable energy sources don’t provide a sufficient amount of energy. This ability to automatically turn on and off non-renewable energy sources will allow for a more sustainable and greener future. 
  3. Customers can monitor their power usage with smart monitors and appliances – Due to the increased communication capabilities from the smart grid, customers will also be able to monitor their power usage to help them manage their consumption of it, especially at peak times of the day. This smart meter will help consumers manage their electricity bills significantly more because they will now know when the cost of power has risen during the day. Home appliances, such as washing machines, will be part of this communication chain so that they can tap into what times of the day are peak usage hours and can automatically schedule their usage times accordingly. Consumers will pay significantly less each month on their energy bills because their home appliances will know not to be activated during critical energy times, when energy consumption becomes much more expensive.  
  4. Lower operational costs Since consumers will help keep energy levels more constant throughout the day, utility companies will also be able to save money. Without as many peaks in energy usage throughout the day, utility companies don’t have to switch on non-renewable power sources as often to make up for the energy renewables can’t generate quickly enough. This will save utility companies money because renewable energy is much more cost-efficient than natural gas, nuclear or coal. 
  5. Self-healing and distribution intelligence – One of the other perks of the smart grid is that power outages are resolved significantly faster and done automatically. Through distribution intelligence, the smart grid is able to detect when a power source goes out due to a storm, for instance, and then automatically reroutes electrical signals from a different power source to reach the homes and businesses that would normally receive their electricity from the power source that had gone out. The smart grid, therefore, is self-healing in the sense that it is able to automatically respond to disruptions or changes in the system and act accordingly to ensure that all consumers stay connected to power. When the power outages are more substantial than just an outage of one power source, then as power begins to come back on, the smart grid is able to strategically send power to the most essential locations first, such as a hospital. 

Teresa Mastrangelo, principal analyst director of research at The Windsor Oaks Group’s Broadbandtrends practice, a business consulting firm that covers next-generation telecommunications infrastructure and services, explained just how revolutionary the smart grid system will be. 

The whole point of the smart grid is that once all these elements are in place, you would have this ubiquitous, self-healing network that would be able to essentially anticipate problems with the infrastructure…[and] make the entire grid work more efficiently and effectively

Teresa Mastrangelo

When will the smart grid be a reality for us?

The current plan is for the smart grid to be installed over the next decade across the U.S. This update in how consumers receive electricity is expected to revolutionize society to almost the same degree as the internet did. Although a smart grid system is still a future thought for most of the U.S., there are some cities getting a head start on its development. For instance, Chattanooga, TN. is one of the few cities that uses a smart grid system. 

When Chattanooga, TN. deployed fiber optic cables throughout the entirety of its city, it not only set up its residents for affordable high-speed internet access, but also for a smart grid system. Due to this investment, Chattanooga went from a forgotten city to a thriving one in less than a decade. Here are some of the main benefits of Chattanooga’s smart grid system: 

  1. Experiences 60% fewer outages annually 
  2. Saves $60 million annually 
  3. Reduces 4.7 million pounds of carbon emissions annually 

What does fiber optics have to do with the smart grid?

When we think of fiber optic technology, we usually think of high-speed internet and 5G; however, fiber optic has capabilities beyond broadband access. One of the main reasons it is so important to invest in fiber optic infrastructure over other broadband technologies is because fiber optic is also the ideal tool for creating a smart grid system. Just like for internet access, a smart grid system can rely on fiber optic cables for its communication needs. 

Fiber optic is ideal for implementing a two-way communication system because those cables give utility companies the ability to detect temperature along any point in a power line. With other materials, utility companies are only able to get readings in the locations where they have deployed sensors.

Jie Huang, researcher and assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Missouri, explained, “In one millisecond, you can get thousands of temperature readings and the temperature distribution.”

This increased ability for temperature readings at any point along a power line is significant because it allows utility companies to more easily monitor the health and performance of its smart grid. And if utility companies can better monitor the grid, they can ensure greater reliability. It is for that reason that market intelligence and advisory firms, such as Navigant Research, are creating reports that advocate for the deployment of fiber optic technology. It is becoming increasingly apparent that it is the future of our society. 

Main takeaway 

Ensuring a sustainable future for our society requires complex solutions. Just like how the internet revolutionized the world several decades ago, the smart grid will do the same in decades to come. But these creations require strong infrastructure and universal access. 

Fiber optic has proven to be the sole material with limitless capabilities and is the backbone of technological innovation. Unless all of society begins investing in the proper infrastructure, we will never solve the digital divide and create a sustainable world for our future generations. 

Ari Howard

Written by:

Ari Howard

Associate Writer, Broadband & Wireless Content

Ari Howard is a staff writer Healthline and spent two years as a writer on the Allconnect team. She specialized in broadband news and studies, particularly relating to internet access, digital safety, broadband-… Read more

Robin Layton

Edited by:

Robin Layton

Editor, Broadband Content

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