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Behind the Light Switch: What Will a Smart Grid Look Like? [Slide Show]

A nut-and-bolts, transformer-and-cable view of the power grid as it gets smarter

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INTERMITTENT FUTURE:

Regardless of how smart it is, the grid of the future will have to deal with less predictable sources of electricity, such as the solar panels pictured here. Given that the amount of electricity generated at any particular moment must closely match the amount of electricity used at any given moment, coping with such variable sources may be the true test of the grid's smarts.....[ More ]

INDUSTRIAL METERS:

Whereas local homes constitute the bulk of the total customer base, stores and factories are actually responsible for more than half of the total electricity usage—and more than half of electricity sales.....[ More ]

SMART METER:

There are 130 million "dumb" meters in use in the U.S. today, by some estimates. Smartened-up versions would enable two-way communication—information from you to the utility and back again—which might boost reliability and efficiency, among other improvements.....[ More ]

AUTO LOOP:

The smart grid will ensure that, in the event of an outage, electricity is restored, as much as possible, automatically. The system instantly isolates any failures and reveals to operators, such as Consolidated Edison senior instructor Patrick Kelly, pictured here, the source of the problem—rather than relying on a phone call from angry customers.....[ More ]

REGULATORS:

Devices called regulators ensure that the voltage on a given distribution line, known as a feeder, remains the same throughout the day—even as the demand for electricity goes up and down.....[ More ]

DISTRIBUTION:

Once the electricity approaches its destination in the distribution grid, another transformer lowers the voltage again to something more suitable for use. In New York City, that's roughly 13,000 volts.....[ More ]

SWITCH:

Components, such as the switch pictured here, control the flow of electricity as well as monitor the distribution grid. Smart switches, like the one pictured here in Consolidated Edison's system in New York, can look in both directions along a given line and communicate with operators wirelessly or automatically reroute electricity around problems—preventing power losses.....[ More ]

SUBSTATION:

Once the electricity has made the nearly instantaneous trip from the power plant to an area where electricity is consumed, such as the city of Boulder, Colo., a transformer converts it again from its transmission voltage to one suitable for local distribution within a city or region, typically 115,000 volts.....[ More ]

CONTROL ROOM:

Operators at control rooms across the country, such as shift manager Kostantinos Pitsoulis of Consolidated Edison's Manhattan electric operations, pictured here, do everything from monitoring the health of grid components such as feeder lines to balancing the amount of electricity being generated with the amount being used at any given moment.....[ More ]

TRANSMISSION TOWER:

Electricity today is ported hundreds of kilometers as three-phase alternating current, typically. The smart grid might update such transmission to high-voltage direct current lines that reduce losses en route—estimated to be roughly 7 percent by the U.S.....[ More ]

STEP UP:

The electricity that comes out of the power plant isn't ready to travel to your home or business yet. First, it has to be stepped to as much as 765,000 volts in order to make the trip, with a corresponding loss in amperage.....[ More ]

PRIME MOVER:

At the heart of the grid spins the same dynamo first set to work more than 100 years ago. Whether the heat comes from the burning of coal or the fissioning of nuclear material, the goal is the same—spinning a turbine that then spins a tube of stacked copper.....[ More ]

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