What most people care about when it comes to the electrical outlet is that the current flows. "The only thing that matters is: when you walk in your house here or California or Colorado and turn on the light switch, does your house light up or doesn't it?" noted Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia during an event to unveil the world's first carbon capture and storage project at a working coal-fired power plant last October.

But keeping those lights on amid ever increasing demand and the rise of wind, solar and other alternative sources of electricity generation that are inherently intermittent is just one of the goals of a smart grid. It will also have great value to utility companies by cutting expenses and improving reliability.

At the very least, the smart grid may finally allow utility companies to know when the power is out—without receiving a phone call. After all, as Constellation Energy CEO Mayo Shattuck admitted at a smart grid event in October: "We still rely on people to call in and then figure out what to fix."

View slide show of the components of a smart grid