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Will U.S. fall behind in smart grid?

Something has been bugging me since earlier this week, when I covered the far-reaching GE press conference about its activities with respect to the smart grid (what General Electric Chairman Jeff Immelt likes to refer to as "digital energy technology").
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor on

Something has been bugging me since earlier this week, when I covered the far-reaching GE press conference about its activities with respect to the smart grid (what General Electric Chairman Jeff Immelt likes to refer to as "digital energy technology").

Sometime during his remarks about digital energy, Immelt remarked that it was likely that nations outside the United States -- ones that don't have an infrastructure that is almost 100 years old -- are likely to ahead most quickly with smart grid technologies. He joked that the "pilot" test for one of the Chinese utility companies is 50 million meters.

Think about that number for a second.

Most of the U.S. pilot projects that I hear about involve maybe hundreds of meters or consumers, let alone thousand. Our biggest challenge, of course, is that we are used to the way things have been running for decades. The only time we wonder about how things are run is when the electricity stops running. When our air-conditioners and computers rooms and networks sap demand on ultra-hot days and we finally hit "peak usage."

Seriously, did you know that we're always generating to the peak? Think of all that wasted capacity being generated when we're NOT at that consumption rate.

A few days ago, market research company ABI Research predicted that smart grid spending will reach approximately $46 billion by 2015. The bulk of that money -- a whopping $41 billion -- will go to the transmission and distribution infrastructure. Slightly less than $5 billion will go to the smart meters themselves.

So, I find myself wondering, how much of our smart grid funding is focused on the rights sorts of activities and where should our government stimulus dollars really be spent? On the smart meters, where we need to do TONS of education, or on the transmission systems that are woefully out-of-date. Here's some perspective from ABI Research analyst Larry Fisher, part of the team that published "Smart Grid Applications: Smart Meters, Demand Response and Distributed Generation:"

"Most of the electric utility infrastructure deployed int he industrialized world was built between 60 and 80 years ago. Much of this infrastructure is outdated, and with the continuing increase in demand for power year after year, the grid cannot safely and reliably manage the loads of today and tomorrow without significant upgrades."

Think about how painful a network upgrade is, and you'll get a teeny sense of how painful this might be.

This whole scenario is why I feel we should be accelerating our investments in microgrid technologies and technologies that help us add renewable generating sources. Sure, metering is a holy grail, but if there isn't enough power to meter, that's an even bigger problem.

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