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Smart thinking about the smart grid

The smart grid is big stuff these days, but you might be surprised to know that much of the “someday” about the smart grid is actually “today” where we live.

So what is the smart grid? Picture a system that can restore itself, rerouting power instantaneously. When a big storm hits, imagine an electric system that can diagnose faults and communicate what went wrong before a utility crew even gets into their truck. Think, too, of more information going to consumers, helping each of us save money and the earth by using less energy. Some of this futuristic talk however, is already decades old for Puget Sound Energy. Our automated switching systems go back to the 1970s and the grid has been getting brainier every decade since with the focus on improving reliability and increasing energy efficiency.

Our monitoring system scans for trouble every four seconds, with our protection systems operating in hundredths of a second. Often, our automated switching schemes restore electricity with little more than a “blink” of the lights. But some problems, like a major storm, may always demand troubleshooters in the field to determine the best fix, and it’s still helpful if customers call to report a problem. While a true “smart grid” will make these systems even more intelligent, technology is already helping to reduce outages and make the ones that do happen shorter.

Smart energy technology is already at your house, too, and is accessible through your computer. All 1.8 million of PSE’s natural gas and electric meters are wireless and have been for about eight years. Do they have all of the most current smart grid bells and whistles? Not quite, but they have a whole lot more brainpower than the traditional meters still in use in many parts of the country. For example, with the data they send digitally every day, you can go to PSE.com and do an easy home energy audit via a MyPSE account. The data is next-day, and not yet real-time, but offers plenty of detail for drilling down into your own energy use – including how to be more efficient.

So why not an all-singing, all-dancing smart grid right now? Fact is, we’re spending your money and we want every dollar to count. Not all of the technology is proven. We could spend a lot more money to have a lot smarter grid, but we also mindful of the impact on your bill. It’s a balancing act. If there’s one thing for certain about the smart grid, it’s that any investment we make has to make the system more reliable or help you cut your energy use. No benefit to you means no-go.

With the grid getting smarter, the rest of us have to keep up. I’ve started a new blog on energy (and a little weather) at AskAndy.pse.com. I’ll also be posting on energy efficiency tips, and look forward to a dialogue with you that will help us all get smarter with your comments and ideas.

Andy Wappler is a senior public relations manager at Puget Sound Energy. He joined PSE in February 2008 after being chief meteorologist at KIRO-TV. He looks forward to hearing from you at AskAndy@PSE.com.

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