Two Simple Things Every American Should Know About the Smart Grid

The reality of the aging power grid in the United States is indicative of a changing society. Implementation of technological advancements for the purpose of bringing the grid up to date is the obvious next step. This is not a simple shift however. Specifically, there are two hurdles to overcome in order to implement substantive grid changes. These hurdles are a shift from the status quo and also the increase in utility bills. When a price tag is attached to anything, consumers will speak out. This doesn't mean these are hurdles impassable, but it does underscore the reality that people are skittish when change comes with a price tag. 

The smart grid is a grid that allows the dualistic flow of energy and power to and from the generation source. The current power grid only supports single-way transfer of power, and is not easily accessible to new energy technologies that are being frequently developed. Thus, the need for a shift in grid technology is drastically overdue.

Ostensibly, it helps to promulgate renewables because it would allow for a common metric into which renewables could enter. The way the current technology is, renewables are either on their own separate grid given the single-wave frequencies and exchange of the current power grid. Or renewables connect to the current power grid through a series of highly expensive interfaces and mechanisms to try and integrate the two. This fact contributes to why renewables tend to have higher prices and are not used nearly as much as they perhaps could be with an updated grid.

But essentially the smart grid would allow for any and all new technologies to easily plug in and meet peoples' needs based on geographical unique locations. For example, more solar could be used in the South and Southwest and more wind power could be used in the Midwest and Northwest and bio fuels could be used more in the Northwest and Northeast.

Hurdle #1: Shift from the Status Quo

Change is always difficult. Whether in the recent attempts to pass comprehensive immigration reform or with voting laws, people will resist and fight change. The smart grid conversation is certainly no exception. Opponents to the idea most commonly cite security issues and also potential of increased radiation emissions associated with this shift in power generation. Therefore, in order to adequately meet the needs of this population, the fecundity of the smart grid must be touted and specifically, the smart grid must be framed as a long-term solution to a long-term problem facing the world. There is a dire need for new energy technologies. But without a commensurate grid through which they can be powered, the high prices of renewables and sustainable energy technologies will remain high and the division deep.  

Hurdle #2: Rise in Utility Costs

Overcoming the hurdle of increased price to utility bills is a problem familiar to all technological development, and development in general. People are frequently more inclined to favor a short-term price reduction over a long term energy/technological investment into their future making the world a more sustainable place for their kids and generations to come. This is a reasonable critique of the smart grid – it will certainly cost more money, but theoretically only in the short term. Therefore, given the long term benefits from a shift in the power grid of the United States to the smart grid system, these hurdles must be overcome with diplomacy and tact, realizing that similar to move environmental issues significant change will have to come with a turn in the generation- notably, millennials.  

Also, there is an opt-out option in the smart grid dialogue. Opponents say it is the easy way out and proponents say it’s only fair. The justification for an opt-out though might be to allow for phasing of this new technology as to ease the digestion of it. If it were to be implemented across the board it would take people by surprise and there would be an unpleasant backlash as a result. And after all, people rightly don't want policies heaped upon them when they might disagree. The Patriot act is a great counter example from the opposite political side. If you agree with it or not, the justification for doing it without vetting it first with the public, was the refrain of "trust us, we need to do this for you safety. While there is balance with this line of thought, mostly in that people will usually reject any form of change to some extent, the idea is to slowly introduce it and let it soak into peoples' minds, before an all-out implementation of it. This will additionally increase the ultimate effectiveness and efficiency of the smart grid, because it will allow for time to work out inevitable kinks in the implementation process.

With the rapid advancement of new energy technologies, which is greatly needed, there must be a power grid to match it. While this new smart grid will meet certain opposition, the two major hurdles can be overcome. However, action must be coupled with respect for both sides of the argument, which are equally legitimate. 

Note: The headline in this story was changed

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Philip Waggoner

Doctoral student in political science, studying at the University of Houston.

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