What the heck is a smart grid anyway?

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By Elisa Wood

August 27, 2009

You know the old adage, ‘Never talk about politics or religion in polite company’? I’m beginning to think we need to add a third restraint, one against debate over the meaning of smart grid.

Okay, it’s not exactly a dinnertime topic. But I’ve discovered in gatherings of energy nerds (I’m one), discussion can become fairly heated over what constitutes “smart grid.”

On the one side are the engineering purists who stick to what I believe was an early definition: automated two-way communication on the grid by way of digital technology. At some point this came to widely include a smart meter that lets your utility ‘talk’ to your house and your house talk back.

On the other extreme, are those that seem to use the term to describe any grid innovation, particularly green or energy efficient technologies. It doesn’t even have to be a new technology. Combined heat and power is sometimes included in the smart club and it is more than 100 years old. (But then, just because something is old, doesn’t mean it’s not smart.)

Sometimes solar panels are described as smart. (They become stupid on the rare occasion when they leak.) And demand response, probably rightly so, has secured its position as part of the wired Mensa club. Integrating wind energy into the transmission system is often cited as a reason we need a smart grid.

It seems important that the industry stop fumbling with this definition. As Jesse Berst said in an excellent article, published March 5, 2009, SmartGridNews.com: “Can you imagine if an automobile CEO began his bailout plea with “I don’t really know what an automobile is, but can I have $20 billion please?” Or if the CEO of CitiGroup began a speech with: “I don’t really know what a bank is, but…” http://www.smartgridnews.com/artman/publish/commentary/Why_the_Smart_Grid_Industry_Can_t_Talk_the_Talk_and_What_to_Do_About_It-530.html.

Here are a few definitions of smart grid that show the range of thinking. Please let me know what you think and post yours as well. Virtual table pounding acceptable; no name calling please!

*“A smart grid delivers electricity from suppliers to consumers using digital technology to save energy, reduce cost and increase reliability and transparency.” Wikipedia

*“In terms of transmission, a smart grid makes it easier to deliver alternative energy sources like wind and solar from rural installations to city centers.” Ariel Schwartz, http://www.inhabitat.com/2009/04/30/energy-101-what-is-a-smart-grid/

*“Smart grid is a transformation. Just as the Internet revolutionized communication; the smart grid will transform how we produce energy, how we transport energy, how we store energy and how we use energy.” GridWise Alliance

*“The Smart Grid isn’t a thing but rather a vision and to be complete, that vision must be expressed from various perspectives – its values, its characteristics, and the milestones for achieving it.” Joe Miller http://www.smartgridnews.com/artman/publish/commentary/What_Is_the_Smart_Grid-567.html

*“Smart grid is the new big thing in the world of green…” http://www.treehugger.com/files/2009/07/amsterdam-smart-grid-pilot-project-ibm-cisco.php

*“While many conversations about the Smart Grid center on communications and metering technologies, the actual definition of Smart Grid is much broader and encompasses grid infrastructure — the brawn as well as the brains.” American Superconductor.

*“Over the past twelve months, Smart Grid has matured from a marketing buzzword to an industry strategy, with everyone from electric utility providers, to consulting and solution firms, to our country’s executive and legislative leaders referencing it as a key strategy for any number of objectives. Experts seem to agree that the Smart Grid is past the tipping point; however, agreement on strategy doesn’t necessarily constitute an agreement on deployment tactics.” http://www.smartgridroadshow.com/2/

Visit Elisa Wood at http://www.realenergywriters.com/ and pick up her free Energy Efficiency Markets podcast and newsletter

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About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of MicrogridKnowledge.com. She has been writing about energy for more than three decades for top industry publications. Her work also has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.


  1. i love this, this is the best explanation ive come across. and whats more it makes sense! please is there a company called “smart grid consulting” based in America? please have u heard of such, im thinking it may be like explained a strategy not a name ,pls send feedback ASAP