The US Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, in cooperation with Whirlpool and IBM, has embarked on a year-long experiment in smart power distribution called GridWise — and it could prove to be the sign that a revolution is at hand.

Smart grids and distributed energy are central to the bright green energy model. By decentralizing power generation and adding digital intelligence to the power network, we can build an energy infrastructure that’s more flexible, better able to take advantage of renewable energy technologies, and more resilient in times of crisis. Groups as diverse as the Pacific Gas & Electric utility and Greenpeace UK support the concept, and an increasingly robust set of technologies make it possible to monitor and control how one uses — and produces — electricity.

The GridWise project connects 300 homes in the cities of Yakima, Washington and Gresham, Oregon to a new intelligent power network combining real-time monitoring of consumption and pricing, Internet-based usage controls, and appliances able to respond to power grid signals indicating problems by temporarily reducing energy use; this smart grid will be coupled with a distributed generation microturbine network. If all goes as planned, the result will be decreased demand on the utility and lower cost for the consumers. This will increase both the stability and the efficiency of the power grid.

Information technology is vital to transforming the electric power system from a rigid, hierarchical system to a collaborative, distributed, commerce-driven “society” of devices that would enhance the utilization of expensive assets and simultaneously increase reliability and security. […] A distributed, network-based electric system will reduce single-point vulnerabilities and allow the grid to become “self-healing,” by incorporating autonomic system reconfiguration in response to human-caused or natural disruptions.
The cornerstone of the GridWise project is the concept of “demand response” — automation allowing customers to reduce or shift consumption during times of peak demand or higher prices. This automation shows up in both web-accessible usage controls and “smart appliances” able to both display power consumption information and respond to power network instability by cutting back on use for a few seconds or minutes. PNNL researchers believe that only 30% of a power grid’s customers need to have such smart appliances to make a substantive difference in both demand and grid performance. Although only 300 households will be involved in this experiment, researchers are confident that GridWise will become a standard part of the regional power grid.

The GridWise households currently have access to their consumption information through both local applications (PDF) and websites (similar to this). To me, this transparency of information is absolutely critical to the success of the project. A semi-smart grid of “demand responsive” appliances and variable power costs would likely be more efficient and stable than the current system, but it’s clear from myriad examples that allowing people to see their energy consumption in real time — including the effect of steps taken to increase efficiency — has a tremendously positive effect. End-of-month summaries and community consumption averages are simply not enough; consumers need to be able to witness the direct result of their choices. In short, we need to make the invisible visible.

GridWise, PG&E’s smart meters, and similar projects are sure signs that the era of smart grids will soon be at hand. The question, then, is whether regulators and utilities will allow the full expression of that grid intelligence: net metering, data transparency, and fine-grain control over just about every aspect of how we use energy.