Imagine a day without using the Internet, email, a cell phone or a TV. Technology is as important to Americans as eating these days. But are we ready for the future? And what will it look like?
The nation is gearing up to change to the smart grid, a planned network that will use 21st century information technology to deliver electricity to American homes and businesses. And copper - one of the best conductors of electricity - is positioned to be part of the power solution, according to the Copper Development Association.
"We're keeping on top of smart grid developments and if copper has a role, the CDA is uniquely positioned to support and promote its use," says David Brender, CDA national program manager.
Copper has properties that make it an important material in our daily lives. What you might not know about copper:
- More than any other non-precious metal, copper is the best conductor of electricity (other than silver), packing more power into a given diameter of wire than competing material.
- Copper is flexible, yet tough. Connections are reliable and secure.
- Copper wiring can bring voice, data and other information quickly and efficiently into homes and businesses.
- Copper is a long-lasting and durable material that needs little or no maintenance. Connections stay tight.
While the smart grid will be built primarily on all new technology, the U.S. grid infrastructure needs to be rebuilt to support its reliability and this requires replacing the cable, says Patrick Gorman, vice president and general manager, North American Electric Utility Cables for General Cable, the largest manufacturer of electric utilities cables in North America. He adds, "The cable used in the re-conducting will need to address the demand for energy efficiency, focusing on lowering energy losses."
The Obama Administration recently gave momentum to the implementation of the smart grid by authorizing $3.4 billion in government support for 100 projects. The projects include installing "smart" electric meters in homes, automating utility substations and installing thousands of new grid sensors. The program will be matched by $4.7 billion in private investments. The money for the government projects is expected to be available within the next two months for work to be completed in one to three years, according to the DOE.
Administration officials say the time is now to turn the smart grid from vision to reality. Our power grid is likened to an ecosystem, made up of more than 9,200 electric generating units with more than a million megawatts of generating capacity connected to more than 300,000 miles of transmission lines, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Although our electricity system is more than 99.97% reliable, power outages and interruptions still cost at least $150 billion annually - about $500 for every man, woman and child, according to the DOE.
An analysis by the Electric Power Research Institute estimates the implementation of the smart grid could reduce electricity use by more than 4% in 2030, a $20.4 billion savings for businesses and consumers nationwide.
Xcel Energy has launched the first fully functioning smart grid city in Boulder, Colo. In September, the company announced that it automated three of four distribution substations, four computer-monitored power feeders and another 23 feeders that are watched for voltage irregularities. Approximately 200 miles of fiber optic cable, 4,600 residential and small business transformers and nearly 16,000 smart meters now are connected to the smart grid system in Boulder.
Top 10 Reasons Consumers Are Talking About the Smart Grid
Proponents say the smart grid likely will be characterized by these qualities:
- Reliable: The smart grid is more likely to provide interruption-free power with fewer disturbances.
- Efficient: The smart grid would reduce both overall and peak energy use rather than generating new strains on power system operations.
- Green: The smart grid could help reduce greenhouse gases and other pollutants by supporting distributed and renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind.
- Consumer-Focused: Consumers, an integral part of a smart grid system, will have more information and choices in how they use and purchase electricity.
- Identifies and Fixes Problems: Today, if there's a power outage, some companies won't know until a consumer calls to report it. A smart grid would be designed to independently identify problems and, if possible, would correct them automatically with little or no human interaction.
- Resilient: A smart grid would respond to natural disasters that can damage its physical infrastructure or a cyber attack. It also will move us toward energy independence from foreign energy sources, which may themselves be targets of attack that are outside our control.
- Power Quality: Its supporters say the smart grid would be capable of delivering the power quality necessary to power our increasingly digital world.
- Lead Consumers into the Future: A smarter grid would help meet the needs of the next generation of cars, including plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. According to the DOE, a smart grid would be able to meet the electricity needs of 73% of the nation's cars and small trucks if the vehicles were replaced by plug-ins that recharged at night.
- Improve the National Economy: Opening the grid, supporters say, would help innovation flourish in the U.S. economy.
- Expand Global Reach: A smart grid would help the U.S. take the lead in providing energy-efficient power worldwide.
Funds from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act plus private investment will pay for the installation of 18 million smart meters, allowing homeowners to monitor the electricity their appliances use and turn them off when their energy consumption becomes too costly. There also will be 200,000 new digital monitoring devices and smart transformers to reduce the risk of power outages and the automation of 700 grid substations. The government eventually wants to deploy 40 million smart meters nationwide.