Carl Imhoff explains how electric grids can get smart

Imhoff’s research is part of a multi-billion dollar effort, paid for with both public and private dollars. The goal is to modernize the electric grid in the U.S. into what’s being called a ‘smart grid.’

Carl Imhoff: We expect by 2050, in about 40 years, for the demand for electricity to double.

That’s Carl Imhoff, an electrical engineer with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, located in Washington State. Imhoff’s research is part of a multi-billion dollar effort, paid for with both public and private dollars. The goal is to modernize the electric grid in the U.S. into what’s being called a ‘smart grid.’

Carl Imhoff: The smart grid refers to taking advantage of the new digital age and bringing it to the electric infrastructure. The grid that you look at today hasn’t changed much in the last 50 years.

Imhoff said homes and businesses on the smart grid will have new meters that constantly communicate electrical use via the internet with utility companies. On a website, consumers can see how much energy they use at any given moment, even at night, and turn things off if they want to save on their bills.

Carl Imhoff: For every unit of electricity that we get, we have to use three units of energy to get it, just because of the inefficiencies in combustion at the power plant and then getting it over the wires to where you can actually use it. So the quickest way for us to reduce energy use and to reduce energy imports is to improve the efficiency of our overall end-use activities.

In other words, use of refrigerators, lights, laptops — anything that, somehow, plugs into the grid.

Carl Imhoff: Historically, people’s meters were read by someone who drove up in a truck once a month to see how much electricity they used. And the people inside the home had no ability to know what was going on in terms of the price of power, the availability of power, etcetera. So that was really what I would call the ‘dumb’ side of the grid. And today there’s new digital equipment, whether it’s smart meters, or smart thermostats, linked with broadband communications, that provide two-way communication to the meters such that the company will know in real time if the meter is out, if there’s an outage. Out at the home, the consumer will know what maybe the price signals are, what incentives they might have to adjust some of their use patterns, etcetera. That’s really the transformation, of getting that two-way communication to the home.

Our thanks to Carl Imhoff
Carl Imhoff is the director of the Electric Infrastructure Market Sector at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington. He directs the R&D portfolio for a wide range of power systems research in support of the US Department of Energy as well as other government and commercial clients. He also serves on steering committees for the North American Synchrophasor Initiative and the USDOE Transmission Reliability Program.

Jorge Salazar