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Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

The Smart Grid

By Bryan Welch 

Tags: smart grid, smart meter, smart metering, net metering, alternative energy,

Our current power grids are dumb.

They are great examples of 20th-century technology, but they are going to get much better.

We have the technology, today, to make our power grid more sustainable, cleaner, more robust and more reliable just by replacing old-fashioned metering with “smart-metering”[1] and agreeing to pay enterprising power consumers for generating some of their own electricity.

Today, almost all our electricity is distributed from power plants through the “power grid” to users. The electricity only flows one way. The utility generates the power. The power flows through wires to homes and businesses. The homes and businesses use the power. The utility measures how much power is used, and charges the customer.

The new, smarter grid, allows every power customer to become a power generator as well as a power consumer. The consumer and the utility are “interconnected.” “Smart meters” measure the power flowing both directions and compensates the customers for their contribution to the power supply.

Where “net metering” is available, utilities measure the customer’s “net” usage. If you can generate some of your own electricity – with photovoltaics, wind or any other generator – the utility buys it from you and sells it to other customers nearby. When we distribute electricity across long distances, some of the power is lost in the process. About 6 percent of the power generated in the United States is lost to transmission inefficiencies.[2] If we empower individuals to produce their own power – and pay them for it – the electricity is distributed more efficiently because it doesn’t have to travel as far.

The utility customer gets compensated for the power, the utility gets a new, inexpensive power source and the grid becomes more reliable and efficient.

Our old-fashioned grid is unnecessarily vulnerable to weather and incompetence. When things go wrong, homes and businesses can go without power for days or weeks. On a hot afternoon in August, 2003, a technician in Ohio forgot to re-start a computer program after a routine procedure, then maintenance problems shut down a nearby power plant and some power lines sagged into trees in Walton Hills and Parma, Ohio. Within hours, 55 million people in the U.S. and Canada were without power.[3] Every year hundreds of thousands of North Americans experience temporary power outages due to weather. Scientists in 2005 estimated that power outages cost the United States about $80 billion a year, on average.[4] 

The principal method for preventing outages is to produce surplus electricity so that peak demand doesn’t stress the system. That’s costly, both for the utility and for the environment, unless that electricity is being generated by millions of individuals and businesses using clean, renewable energy sources. The utility can acquire that power at an attractive price, and it doesn’t have to plow billions of dollars into new generation facilities.

Net metering and smart meters are spreading. Most of the United States have laws that authorize net metering and part of the grid was open to net metering in at least 35 states at the time of this writing[5]. Unfortunately, implementation of net metering and smart meters has been relatively slow. Consumer demand may accelerate the process in the near future, and consumers will probably drive new pricing negotiations with the utilities, as well.

Imagine a power grid that includes millions of individual generators – photovoltaic panels, wind turbines, big coal plants, natural gas co-generators, etc. – interconnected with smart meters, paying on a “net-metered” basis and supporting each other.  In mid-summer, when North American demand for electricity peaks, the photovoltaics are also generating more electricity. When overgrown trees interrupt the power supply from a coal plant in Ohio, a wind farm in Pennsylvania takes up some of the slack.

Photovoltaics and wind energy were pioneered by independent spirits who wanted to live “off the grid.” The most negative aspect of an off-the-grid system is the necessity of storing electricity in batteries – an expensive, toxic and inefficient technology. Interconnection with the smart grid allows individuals and businesses to benefit from generating their own power without the necessity of storing it in batteries.

And our supply of electricity – whether or not we generate it ourselves – becomes more reliable and secure as the big industrial generators are supplemented by thousands – or millions – of small independent producers.

Unfortunately, so far utilities have hampered efforts to implement net metering on a large scale. Most of the United States limit the amount of power an independent generator can sell to the grid, even where net metering is available. In most places, consumers are pushing their utilities and governments to liberate the utility grid, so it can get smarter.

This essay is excerpted from Beautiful and Abundant: Building the World We Want, published in December, 2010, by B&A Books. The book is available now on the Mother Earth News bookshelf. 

Bryan Welch is the Publisher and Editorial Director of Ogden Publications, the parent company of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Connect with him on . 

For further optimistic discussion about our future, read Beautiful and Abundant by Bryan Welch and connect with Beautiful and Abundant on Facebook.  

[1] Declan Butler. Energy efficiency: Super savers: Meters to manage the future. NATURE: International Weekly Journal of Science. February 8, 2007. Sourced March 31, 2010.

[2] U.S. Energy Information Administration Office of Coal, Nuclear, Electric and Alternate Fuels. State Electricity Profiles 2008. March 2010. U.S. Department of Energy, Washington DC 20585. DOE/EIA-0348(01)/2.

[3] U.S.-Canada Power System Outage Task Force. Final Report on the August 14, 2003 Blackout in the United States and Canada: Causes and Recommendations. Chapter 5. April 5, 2004.

[4] Allan Chen. Berkeley Lab Study Estimates $80 Billion Annual Cost of Power Interruptions. Research News/Berkeley Lab. Feb. 2, 2005. Sourced March 31, 2010.

[5] U.S. Department of Energy Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy. The Green Power Network: Green Power Markets; Net Metering Policies. Sourced April 1, 2010.

t brandt
12/13/2010 5:28:01 PM

??? Let me get this straight: you want me, here in NE Illinois, to produce my own electricity from wind or PV, at a cost of ~35cents/kw-hr, and sell it back to our power company, which will pay me ~12cents/kw-hr? I guess I gotta make up the difference on volume, right? Maybe we should just wait until the coal actually runs out.

8/3/2010 9:19:18 AM

I have solar panels and a net meter. Love it! Smart meters are becoming a tough sell here in central CA. They are using WIFI to send the data. I am not concerned as my meter is way out on the well house. If my meter were on the outside wall by the head of my bed as can be the case in many urban residences, I would not be in favor unless they could locate the antenna 33 feet from where I spend most of my time in my home. That is the permitted exposure distance that we had to have for the public when I did Cell Phone tower work. Need to consider all of the implications of the system. I'm wondering why they can't just run the info back over the power lines (although that might produce unacceptable levels of RF interference-don't know much about that technology.)

8/3/2010 2:53:11 AM

I am a member of both TURN and UCAN, watchdog agencies that try to 'watch over" the utilities and such - The "smart meters" sound great - but so far there have been reports of people's bills going through the roof, and of these meters catching fire up north. I read TURN was trying to get the installation of these meters blocked until they could be proven to be reliable, and accurate. Our condo's have been getting these smart meters - once mine is installed I will have to watch and see what happens to my bill. I have already warned SDG&E about what TURN has said about these meters.

roxanne peterson
8/2/2010 10:41:34 PM

"The real advantage of the smart grid is that it would produce thousands of small grids that would be less dependent on each other." Oh, I think I'm starting to understand the tension here. Of course the big utilities are going to fight this because it dismantles there influence and hence there ability to control prices. It's not just everyone hooked together and sending electricity back and forth to the main utility provider. It sounds like there could be much smaller more independent systems and networks that could work together cooperatively to meet their own needs for the most part, and set their own prices, etc. And in our society, the bigger the business the more influence they have over "our" representatives in Congress, so I can see how that would put the brakes on the momentum if the big utilities feel threatened. What am I missing in this "analysis"? What can we do to move forward? I know in MN, we seem to be in a state of major constipation over these issues. A lot of fingers in the pie, but not much pie eating going on here.

8/2/2010 9:51:15 PM

I agree,I think the biggest hold back for a lot of low income people is the the cost of course. I have wanted solar pannels for years but when you live one month at a time is becomes imposable to save any money. It only takes one emergency to wipe out any money you have saved for a solar system. It's just maddning. Rodney

karen / la
8/2/2010 8:51:07 PM

thank you for being on line. it is so way past time to live off the grid. but it is so expensive. I remember when I was under 20 yrs old and y'all had a cheap way to make solar panels. like cans painted black and a batttery. I would like to start with that and have free hot water. thanks for being here. now that i've found you I will telll everyone and be back. warning!! lol ha ha ha karen/la 52+yrs

scotts contracting_1
8/2/2010 3:39:55 PM

Well said! I'm glad others think as I do. I especially enjoyed the part about Individuals supplying the extra Electricity needed when the Utility Company has Problems. I also think the Governments reluctance to Renewable Energy is because they will have less control over the Population. Otherwise why haven't they led the Charge on Enabling Renewable Energy that will reduce the USA's need for Foreign Oil? Why are we giving our Money and Resources to Countries that are against the USA? When we give them $Money$ we also enable them in their Activities that are Anti-American. On my Green and Eco Friendly Web Site: I welcome all green and eco friendly comments. I also have Guest Post Opportunities for Sharing your Green and Eco Friendly Information. The Guest Post Opportunities are Free of Charge.

7/14/2010 5:12:46 PM

Great thought, Reboot. Very good points. Thanks! - Bryan

7/14/2010 12:19:25 PM

Bryan, very nice article, but I have to take issue with a few of your comments. I am a blogger for and I also live a couple miles from the edge of the power grid in the Cascade Mountains. I can’t help but wonder why one would want to generate their own power without a means of storing any of that power? Net metering, or any system that doesn’t store power, is creating a “use it or loose it” scenario. There is no security there. If the grid is down, the consumer is without power except for what they can generate and only at the moment of generation. It doesn’t help to have a few solar panels at 9 p.m. in the evening when they are not generating. The real advantage of the smart grid is that it would produce thousands of small grids that would be less dependent on each other. The power producers should be industrial complexes, not houses. Residential solar panels you must consider; roof pitch, landscaping (any trees casting shadows), direction the roof is facing, available square footage and more. Industrial complexes usually have flat roofs, sparse landscaping (with parking lots), and lots of square footage. Where all of us can help is to evaluate our own energy usage. Look at your last power bill and try to drop the Kwh used by 10%. Then another 10%, and so on. Buy energy saving appliances. Take some of the money you would save buy not buying that solar setup and by some CFL and LED lighting. Replace ALL your incandescent bulbs. Reboot2009

charles j_3
6/21/2010 10:43:01 PM

What's really dumb about them is they constantly keep getting knocked out with every storm. It's time we generate our own power with solar and wind. Next year when the house is paid off I'll be setting the example for my late starting suburban neighbors.