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Answering Your Questions about Grid Modernization

June 18, 2013 - 10:47am


During last week’s Smart Grid Week, we highlighted some of the efforts currently underway to modernize the nation’s electric grid. Below are answers to some of the questions submitted by readers. As we continue to build a more reliable, resilient and secure grid, I look forward to an ongoing dialogue.  

Question: What's the difference between the smart grid and a microgrid?

The term “smart grid” has come to mean a range of technologies, tools and techniques being used to modernize our electric grid. Making the grid “smarter” involves the deployment of advanced devices that give near-real time data on system conditions, support the two-way flow of electricity and information between utility and users, and enable demand response, outage management and other important capabilities. A smarter grid improves reliability, resiliency and efficiency -- leading to fewer outages, faster restoration of power when disruptions occur and cost savings.  

A microgrid is just like it sounds – a localized grid that is normally connected to the more traditional electric grid but can disconnect to operate autonomously.  Because of their ability to operate independently of the grid during outages -- such as those caused by extreme weather events -- microgrids are generally used to serve critical facilities such as water treatment plants and hospitals, providing reliable power in emergencies. 

Question: When smart grid technologies are deployed, do they include the capability to sell electricity back to the grid?   

Answer: Whether a customer is able to sell electricity back to the grid depends primarily on the laws in the state. For example, customers in the majority of states are now able to send electricity from their solar panels to the grid when the panels are generating more electricity than they need. Smart grid technologies will not interfere with this ability, and in fact can help better enable integration of renewable sources of energy -- such as solar and wind -- onto the grid at the generator and consumer level. Under our Recovery Act-funded smart grid program, pilot demonstrations in Ohio and the Pacific Northwest will help policy and regulatory decision-makers assess how this approach can best be implemented.   

Question: How do we connect our appliances without disclosing sensitive information such as presence at home?

Answer: Consumer privacy is a vitally important issue and is currently being addressed in numerous conversations around the nation between the private sector, government, consumer advocacy groups and other stakeholders.  The Department supports the Administration’s approach that emphasizes the importance of empowering consumers to make informed choices about their energy consumption while at the same time ensuring that their energy consumption data is protected. We are collaborating in many ways on this issue, one of which involves including bringing together people from across the private and public sectors to develop a voluntary code of conduct for data privacy that will establish common practices that protect the access, use and sharing of customers’ electricity usage and related data. The first stakeholder meeting was held earlier this year, with additional meetings planned over the next six months.    

Question: What type of work are you doing with community colleges and smart grid training?

Answer:  The Energy Department provided nearly $100 million in Recovery Act funding to 54 workforce training projects that are creating exciting new training curricula and programs designed to build tomorrow’s smart grid workforce today. (Recipients of the grants estimate that their projects will train about 30,000 Americans. To date, more than 23,000 people have been trained.) The Council for Adult & Experiential Learning, through its “Light Up Your Future” program, arranged for a group of high school students from the Academy of Engineering and Green Technology in Hartford, Conn., to do a four-week internship with utility workers from Northeast Utilities so they could learn what their daily work lives are like. You can read letters from the students here.  

To learn more about national efforts to modernize the electric grid, visit the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability’s website