The city of Austin, Texas recently announced a smart grid project. Smart grids, you may recall, are one of the core elements of the Grand Climate Plan. Although the Austin project isn’t the first such effort in the country, officials hope that the city will be able to move faster than others, because Austin actually owns the local power provider.

Right now you may be wondering: What’s a smart grid?

Glad you asked. The term refers to a set of complementary technologies that share the aim of moving power from producer to consumer in a more intelligent manner than our current dumb grid. The dumb grid we have now works under a basic principle: Utilities make electricity and send it down the wire. Consumers plug in and pay a bill each month. The end.

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A smart grid might incorporate any of the following features:

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  • The ability to move power from point-to-point in a distributed fashion. Say half the buildings in your neighborhood have solar panels, the other half have wind turbines, and all of them own plug-in hybrid automobiles. With a smart grid, power can be moved from wherever it’s being produced to wherever it’s needed, and excess can be stored in the plug-ins’ batteries to be drawn down later when demand is at a peak.
  • The ability to fine tune demand. Imagine that rather than just plugging in and sucking power, your appliances communicate with the grid to coordinate their power consumption. For example, all 600 refrigerators in your neighborhood won’t decide to run their compressors at the same time.
  • The ability to fine tune rates. Another way to adjust demand is to make power cheaper when demand is lowest, and vice versa.
  • The ability to send power long distances. This capability is critical to bringing renewable energy to places that don’t have ready access to supply.

All of this stuff is fairly theoretical at this point, and a host of software and hardware challenges need to be overcome. Part of Austin’s goal is to open up their system to experiments:

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We will open Austin Energy’s grid to entrepreneurs and researchers to test prototype technologies in the real world. We aren’t just going to build a lab — the City of Austin will be the lab.