Friday, June 26, 2009

Engineers Getting Social


Facebook, Myspace, Twitter. They once belonged to those who wanted to tell the world that they just had a cup of coffee or their dogs were eating kibble or they couldn't wait for Friday or… It seemed everyone had something to say, often not important, about every little thing going on in their lives. Social web services didn't appear to have any appeal for technical types like engineers. But that's changed.

Truth be known, engineers pioneered social media -- the ancestors of Twitter, Facebook and the like existed as part of ARPAnet before it became the Internet and then the web. Back then, before Mosaic (the first browser), only those who grokked Unix could talk to each other. They used a "Talk utility" to send short messages that immediately showed up on a screen at the other end of the Unix pipeline. Interestingly, the Unix-ARPAnet system limited each message to 80 characters. By comparison, Twitter's 140 characters are downright mouthy.

Engineers sent longer messages via Telnet, much as we send notes by instant messenger. But Telnet wasn't for the faint of heart. You really had to know your zeros and ones.

Age makes cowards of us all as we learn how much there is to be afraid of -- it's easy to fall into the trap of finding ways to elude rather than embrace technologies that have today's campus puppies all atwitter. Instead of Tweeting, there are those who'd rather punch up the phone, exchange pleasantries (Hey, how are you? Heard you had to get a new desk. By the way, how's that knee?) followed by a 140-WORD question followed by more pleasantries (So, I'll be talking to you. If you want the name of that chiropractor, let me know. Later.) Well-practiced Tweeters can do all of that and more in fewer than 140 characters.

Twittering promotes lean, precise messaging. It's efficient. It's now and it's the future. The message for techno-cowards: Change or die.

More engineers are seeing the twittering on the wall. They know it's good for them. So are Facebook, LinkedIn and Flickr. But of all of them, Twitter's getting deeper under Engineers' collective skin

Michigan Engineering is already into it. We have this blog. (Chatty, I know. I’m working on it.) Our RSS feeds deliver regularly changing web content to followers. Our Facebook page is a getting to be a regular stopover for Michigan Engineering travelers -- it's a nice way to learn about the College. (The University’s Communicators' Forum has its own Facebook presence.)

When I check out LinkedIn, Michigan Engineering names popped up all over. The University recently kicked off Yammer. And now I'm waiting for BlackBoard to hit campus -- it's a web-based course-management system that "allows students and faculty to participate in classes delivered online or use online materials and activities to complement face-to-face teaching."

I love blogging and I've caught the Twitter bug. But my favorite web service around here might be the library's “Ask a Librarian” service -- it's a handy instant messaging tool you can use to (wait for it) ask a librarian a question. They'll respond to anyone, anywhere, not just University of Michigan folks (I checked). They're VERY helpful -- and they'll respond with more than 140 characters if necessary.

I'm done with this posting. You go tell someone about it. I'm going to tell a few folks about it, too… in 140 characters, at most.

Engineers Getting Social


Facebook, Myspace, Twitter. They once belonged to those who wanted to tell the world that they just had a cup of coffee or their dogs were eating kibble or they couldn't wait for Friday or… It seemed everyone had something to say, often not important, about every little thing going on in their lives. Social web services didn't appear to have any appeal for technical types like engineers. But that's changed.

Truth be known, engineers pioneered social media -- the ancestors of Twitter, Facebook and the like existed as part of ARPAnet before it became the Internet and then the web. Back then, before Mosaic (the first browser), only those who grokked Unix could talk to each other. They used a "Talk utility" to send short messages that immediately showed up on a screen at the other end of the Unix pipeline. Interestingly, the Unix-ARPAnet system limited each message to 80 characters. By comparison, Twitter's 140 characters are downright mouthy.

Engineers sent longer messages via Telnet, much as we send notes by instant messenger. But Telnet wasn't for the faint of heart. You really had to know your zeros and ones.

Age makes cowards of us all as we learn how much there is to be afraid of -- it's easy to fall into the trap of finding ways to elude rather than embrace technologies that have today's campus puppies all atwitter. Instead of Tweeting, there are those who'd rather punch up the phone, exchange pleasantries (Hey, how are you? Heard you had to get a new desk. By the way, how's that knee?) followed by a 140-WORD question followed by more pleasantries (So, I'll be talking to you. If you want the name of that chiropractor, let me know. Later.) Well-practiced Tweeters can do all of that and more in fewer than 140 characters.

Twittering promotes lean, precise messaging. It's efficient. It's now and it's the future. The message for techno-cowards: Change or die.

More engineers are seeing the twittering on the wall. They know it's good for them. So are Facebook, LinkedIn and Flickr. But of all of them, Twitter's getting deeper under Engineers' collective skin

Michigan Engineering is already into it. We have this blog. (Chatty, I know. I’m working on it.) Our RSS feeds deliver regularly changing web content to followers. Our Facebook page is a getting to be a regular stopover for Michigan Engineering travelers -- it's a nice way to learn about the College. (The University’s Communicators' Forum has its own Facebook presence.)

When I check out LinkedIn, Michigan Engineering names popped up all over. The University recently kicked off Yammer. And now I'm waiting for BlackBoard to hit campus -- it's a web-based course-management system that "allows students and faculty to participate in classes delivered online or use online materials and activities to complement face-to-face teaching."

I love blogging and I've caught the Twitter bug. But my favorite web service around here might be the library's “Ask a Librarian” service -- it's a handy instant messaging tool you can use to (wait for it) ask a librarian a question. They'll respond to anyone, anywhere, not just University of Michigan folks (I checked). They're VERY helpful -- and they'll respond with more than 140 characters if necessary.

I'm done with this posting. You go tell someone about it. I'm going to tell a few folks about it, too… in 140 characters, at most.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Engineers -- Problem Solvers and Public Servants

There might be no better ambition than to live as long and as well as possible, and leave the world a better place than we found it. A lot of us aspire to do that. Not many of us get around to it. But I've discovered a set of people who spend a lot of time making life better for others. I'm talking about engineers.

Their most basic talent is problem-solving. Cleaner air? They'll figure it out. Better water? Safer cars? Helping the hearing-impaired to hear? Delivering chemotherapeutic drugs to individual cells? Easier ways to find information? More efficient, safer, cleaner energy production? Engineers are on top of things. They're all about solving problems.

The history of engineers in public service goes way back. They built mastabas and then pyramids to entomb the dead in ancient Egypt. During the first millennium Roman engineers crisscrossed the Italian peninsula with 53,000 miles of interconnecting roads. In 1861, the 1st Michigan Engineers and Mechanics maintained the North's bridges, railroads and telegraph lines while the Civil War raged around them.

John Kennedy herded tens of thousands of young Americans into his Peace Corps. Many of them were and are engineers. Daniel Wright is a University of Michigan alum who put his civil engineering degree to work for the Peace Corps and Engineers without Borders. That's him in the photo, helping to drill a well at the Escuela Agrícola Muyurina (Mayurina agricultural school) outside of Santa Cruz, Bolivia. He considers himself "extremely lucky" to have had the opportunity to choose his own path in life. "It's not an option that many people have," he said. "People like me have a responsibility to try to provide the situations necessary for others to have the same opportunities. My work in the Peace Corps was a way of providing people with basic sanitation and water needs so that they could devote more time and energy to things such as education."

America’s Promise Alliance, founded by General Colin Powell, is the nation’s largest cross-sector partnership dedicated to improving the lives of America's children. An engineer is its chief strategy officer.

Food Gatherers is a program that collects unwanted food and distributes it to agencies that feed the hungry. Paul Saginaw, an engineer and co-founder of Zingermann’s Deli (a hot Detroit-area eatery), created Food Gatherers; whenever possible he also makes a point of hiring people from Dawn Farm, an organization that helps addicts and alcoholics with their long-term recovery. Saginaw is an engineer.

Andrea Messmer, a University of Michigan engineering alum, currently in Poi Pet, Cambodia, threw herself into a program that retrieves victims of child-trafficking from Thailand. She also runs a children's library and coordinates small-scale development projects around Poi Pet.

Claudette Juska, a research specialist for Greenpeace is an engineer who tackles issues associated with fuel efficiency policies, air quality, seafood purity and corporate "greenwashing" (improperly portraying oneself as green).

Engineers charge into positions as environmentalists, senators, kinder-care volunteers, teachers of the impoverished, high school mentors, soldiers, museum docents -- the list is sweeping, highly varied, startlingly impressive. I'm not saying that engineers who perform selfless acts live longer or better than everyone else, but I'm betting that, as a group with better than average problem-solving abilities, they're more well equipped than most to leave the world a better place than they found it.

Engineers -- Problem Solvers and Public Servants

There might be no better ambition than to live as long and as well as possible, and leave the world a better place than we found it. A lot of us aspire to do that. Not many of us get around to it. But I've discovered a set of people who spend a lot of time making life better for others. I'm talking about engineers.

Their most basic talent is problem-solving. Cleaner air? They'll figure it out. Better water? Safer cars? Helping the hearing-impaired to hear? Delivering chemotherapeutic drugs to individual cells? Easier ways to find information? More efficient, safer, cleaner energy production? Engineers are on top of things. They're all about solving problems.

The history of engineers in public service goes way back. They built mastabas and then pyramids to entomb the dead in ancient Egypt. During the first millennium Roman engineers crisscrossed the Italian peninsula with 53,000 miles of interconnecting roads. In 1861, the 1st Michigan Engineers and Mechanics maintained the North's bridges, railroads and telegraph lines while the Civil War raged around them.

John Kennedy herded tens of thousands of young Americans into his Peace Corps. Many of them were and are engineers. Daniel Wright is a University of Michigan alum who put his civil engineering degree to work for the Peace Corps and Engineers without Borders. That's him in the photo, helping to drill a well at the Escuela Agrícola Muyurina (Mayurina agricultural school) outside of Santa Cruz, Bolivia. He considers himself "extremely lucky" to have had the opportunity to choose his own path in life. "It's not an option that many people have," he said. "People like me have a responsibility to try to provide the situations necessary for others to have the same opportunities. My work in the Peace Corps was a way of providing people with basic sanitation and water needs so that they could devote more time and energy to things such as education."

America’s Promise Alliance, founded by General Colin Powell, is the nation’s largest cross-sector partnership dedicated to improving the lives of America's children. An engineer is its chief strategy officer.

Food Gatherers is a program that collects unwanted food and distributes it to agencies that feed the hungry. Paul Saginaw, an engineer and co-founder of Zingermann’s Deli (a hot Detroit-area eatery), created Food Gatherers; whenever possible he also makes a point of hiring people from Dawn Farm, an organization that helps addicts and alcoholics with their long-term recovery. Saginaw is an engineer.

Andrea Messmer, a University of Michigan engineering alum, currently in Poi Pet, Cambodia, threw herself into a program that retrieves victims of child-trafficking from Thailand. She also runs a children's library and coordinates small-scale development projects around Poi Pet.

Claudette Juska, a research specialist for Greenpeace is an engineer who tackles issues associated with fuel efficiency policies, air quality, seafood purity and corporate "greenwashing" (improperly portraying oneself as green).

Engineers charge into positions as environmentalists, senators, kinder-care volunteers, teachers of the impoverished, high school mentors, soldiers, museum docents -- the list is sweeping, highly varied, startlingly impressive. I'm not saying that engineers who perform selfless acts live longer or better than everyone else, but I'm betting that, as a group with better than average problem-solving abilities, they're more well equipped than most to leave the world a better place than they found it.

Monday, June 15, 2009

FUNdamentals -- From the Engineering Phrase Book

To understand engineers you have to realize that they speak a different language...

DEVELOPED AFTER YEARS OF INTENSIVE RESEARCH - Discovered it by accident.

PROJECT SLIGHTLY BEHIND ORIGINAL SCHEDULE DUE TO UNFORSEEN DIFFICULTIES - We decided to work on something else.

THE DESIGNS ARE WELL WITHIN ALLOWABLE LIMITS - I hope they don't check our figures.

OUR CUSTOMERS WILL BE VERY SATISFIED - We're so far behind schedule that they'll be happy to get anything at all.

CLOSE PROJECT COORDINATION - This project's a mess... Let's spread the responsibility around.

WE'LL FINALIZE THE DESIGN IN THE COMING WEEK - We haven't started the job yet.

WE'RE TRYING A NUMBER OF DIFFERENT APPROACHES - We don't have a clue about how to do this.

TEST RESULTS WERE EXTREMELY GRATIFYING - Someone leaned on the right button.

WE'RE TAKING A FRESH APPROACH TO THE PROBLEM - We just hired three new guys; maybe they can figure it out.

PRELIMINARY OPERATIONAL TESTS ARE INCONCLUSIVE - It never occurred to us that it might blow up.

DUE TO CIRCUMSTANCES BEYOND OUR CONTROL, WE HAVE TO ABANDON THE PROJECT - The only guy who understood the thing quit.

MODIFICATIONS ARE UNDERWAY TO CORRECT CERTAIN MINOR DIFFICULTIES - We subcontracted the project.

FUNdamentals -- From the Engineering Phrase Book

To understand engineers you have to realize that they speak a different language...

DEVELOPED AFTER YEARS OF INTENSIVE RESEARCH - Discovered it by accident.

PROJECT SLIGHTLY BEHIND ORIGINAL SCHEDULE DUE TO UNFORSEEN DIFFICULTIES - We decided to work on something else.

THE DESIGNS ARE WELL WITHIN ALLOWABLE LIMITS - I hope they don't check our figures.

OUR CUSTOMERS WILL BE VERY SATISFIED - We're so far behind schedule that they'll be happy to get anything at all.

CLOSE PROJECT COORDINATION - This project's a mess... Let's spread the responsibility around.

WE'LL FINALIZE THE DESIGN IN THE COMING WEEK - We haven't started the job yet.

WE'RE TRYING A NUMBER OF DIFFERENT APPROACHES - We don't have a clue about how to do this.

TEST RESULTS WERE EXTREMELY GRATIFYING - Someone leaned on the right button.

WE'RE TAKING A FRESH APPROACH TO THE PROBLEM - We just hired three new guys; maybe they can figure it out.

PRELIMINARY OPERATIONAL TESTS ARE INCONCLUSIVE - It never occurred to us that it might blow up.

DUE TO CIRCUMSTANCES BEYOND OUR CONTROL, WE HAVE TO ABANDON THE PROJECT - The only guy who understood the thing quit.

MODIFICATIONS ARE UNDERWAY TO CORRECT CERTAIN MINOR DIFFICULTIES - We subcontracted the project.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Smart Grid – Part III: Electric Cars Need Intelligent Power

Buckminster Fuller wisely said, “The best way to predict the future is to design it.” Creating a worldwide smart grid poses multiple design problems but a bright future in which everything that consumes electricity talks to each other -- energy providers, smart buildings, home appliances, aircraft, solar panels, batteries... and, notably, electric cars and an infrastructure to support them.

Currently, the United States alone supports 234 million vehicles that, each year, swallow roughly 140 trillion gallons of fuel and expel about 1.4 trillion tons of CO2. There are more than 600 million vehicles in the world; do the math and you'll see what kind of trouble we're in.

Building electric cars and a smart grid to support them can cut those numbers significantly, but it'll require new ways of looking at things -- we tend to shoehorn new ideas into old models and end up with inferior results. Case in point: our approach to electrifying vehicles. Cars have gas tanks; when the gauge nears empty, we stop and fill them up. So we've designed electric cars with the idea that when we get low on juice, we’ll simply stop and recharge the batteries. The problems with this model are overwhelming. Filling up a gas tank can take ten minutes; recharging a battery could take hours. There's no infrastructure of plug-in spots to support electrical vehicles.Today's power grid can't deliver electricity over long distances, and the grid isn't sophisticated enough to distribute varying amounts of electricity as needs change in real time in different areas.

There's another model that's getting traction. In this scenario a smart grid will not only power vehicles efficiently but turn them into storage units. Drivers will plug into smart charging stations, homes, offices, malls, parks -- there'll be an outlet wherever and whenever you need one. Drivers who can't take the time to "top off their tanks" will stop at swap spots -- think of them as gas stations where, in just a few minutes, automated attendants remove a spent battery and put in one with a full charge. It's not a completely foreign idea;  engineering students at the University of Michigan are working on an autonomous device that'll extend the flight time of model helicopters by removing depleted batteries and replacing them with new ones. The battery swapper, a rudimentary but functional device, will allow one of their model helicopters to operate indefinitely. Smart electric vehicles will accept and store electricity that they get from the grid, which will include home generation from solar panels and small wind-capture devices. The electricity that these vehicles don't use will flow back into the grid, and the vehicles owners will receive rebates on their energy bills or discounts applied to the cost of battery swapping.

Although seemingly science fiction, a rudimentary system of this sort is already in the works in Israel. The project grew from an idea in which an entire "automotive ecosystem" would blanket the country with a network of smart charge spots so that drivers could plug in anywhere, anytime. Just as we might buy minutes in a mobile phone plan, drivers would purchase a plan  for unlimited miles, a maximum number of miles each month or pay as they go -- all for less than the equivalent cost for gas. Carrying the analogy further, drivers would pay relatively little from their cars because dealers, in partnership with power companies would make their money by selling electricity, the equivalent of phone companies selling minutes.

If all goes according to plan, a smart grid in Boulder, Colorado, will begin to function in 2010, powering plug-in hybrid vehicles that will extract power from the grid and feed it back or serve as back-up power sources for homes.

That's the future that we can design. It won't be easy, it won't be cheap, but it's a beautiful idea -- one that will enable us to leave the world a better than we found it.

Part I: The Smart Grid -- Electricity with a Brain

Part II: The Smart Grid -- Implementing a National Clean-energy Smart Grid

The Smart Grid – Part III: Electric Cars Need Intelligent Power

Buckminster Fuller wisely said, “The best way to predict the future is to design it.” Creating a worldwide smart grid poses multiple design problems but a bright future in which everything that consumes electricity talks to each other -- energy providers, smart buildings, home appliances, aircraft, solar panels, batteries... and, notably, electric cars and an infrastructure to support them.

Currently, the United States alone supports 234 million vehicles that, each year, swallow roughly 140 trillion gallons of fuel and expel about 1.4 trillion tons of CO2. There are more than 600 million vehicles in the world; do the math and you'll see what kind of trouble we're in.

Building electric cars and a smart grid to support them can cut those numbers significantly, but it'll require new ways of looking at things -- we tend to shoehorn new ideas into old models and end up with inferior results. Case in point: our approach to electrifying vehicles. Cars have gas tanks; when the gauge nears empty, we stop and fill them up. So we've designed electric cars with the idea that when we get low on juice, we’ll simply stop and recharge the batteries. The problems with this model are overwhelming. Filling up a gas tank can take ten minutes; recharging a battery could take hours. There's no infrastructure of plug-in spots to support electrical vehicles.Today's power grid can't deliver electricity over long distances, and the grid isn't sophisticated enough to distribute varying amounts of electricity as needs change in real time in different areas.

There's another model that's getting traction. In this scenario a smart grid will not only power vehicles efficiently but turn them into storage units. Drivers will plug into smart charging stations, homes, offices, malls, parks -- there'll be an outlet wherever and whenever you need one. Drivers who can't take the time to "top off their tanks" will stop at swap spots -- think of them as gas stations where, in just a few minutes, automated attendants remove a spent battery and put in one with a full charge. It's not a completely foreign idea;  engineering students at the University of Michigan are working on an autonomous device that'll extend the flight time of model helicopters by removing depleted batteries and replacing them with new ones. The battery swapper, a rudimentary but functional device, will allow one of their model helicopters to operate indefinitely. Smart electric vehicles will accept and store electricity that they get from the grid, which will include home generation from solar panels and small wind-capture devices. The electricity that these vehicles don't use will flow back into the grid, and the vehicles owners will receive rebates on their energy bills or discounts applied to the cost of battery swapping.

Although seemingly science fiction, a rudimentary system of this sort is already in the works in Israel. The project grew from an idea in which an entire "automotive ecosystem" would blanket the country with a network of smart charge spots so that drivers could plug in anywhere, anytime. Just as we might buy minutes in a mobile phone plan, drivers would purchase a plan  for unlimited miles, a maximum number of miles each month or pay as they go -- all for less than the equivalent cost for gas. Carrying the analogy further, drivers would pay relatively little from their cars because dealers, in partnership with power companies would make their money by selling electricity, the equivalent of phone companies selling minutes.

If all goes according to plan, a smart grid in Boulder, Colorado, will begin to function in 2010, powering plug-in hybrid vehicles that will extract power from the grid and feed it back or serve as back-up power sources for homes.

That's the future that we can design. It won't be easy, it won't be cheap, but it's a beautiful idea -- one that will enable us to leave the world a better than we found it.

Part I: The Smart Grid -- Electricity with a Brain

Part II: The Smart Grid -- Implementing a National Clean-energy Smart Grid

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Smart Grid -- Part II: Implementing a National Clean-energy Smart Grid

There are four keys in the construction of a twenty-first century smart grid:
  • Good strategic planning -- Currently, the process of planning the grid is too fragmented and decentralized. There needs to be a coordinated and large-scale effort to establish new policies and mechanisms for upgrading technology and dramatically improving reliability, security and efficiency.
  •  
  • Positioning new power transmission lines -- A national smart grid will, by its very nature, cross state lines. So the national plan will require the coordinated efforts of individual states. That by itself is a major undertaking which will require the establishment of a "siting authority" that's comprised of states but independent of the federal government.
  •  
  • Funding the national smart grid -- Depending on who’s talking, a smart grid will cost as much a $2 trillion and as "little" as $100 billion. Most would come from power companies and private investors, but consumers will eventually foot the bill by paying more for electricity. But it's likely that the smart grid will lower the cost of energy. Over time and after a bit of pain, consumers will recover their investment.
  •  
  • Making the smart grid secure and reliable -- Today's electric grids make good targets for malicious individuals and groups. Smart grids, which will be highly complex and interconnected from coast to coast, will be particularly attractive to troublemakers, large and small. So, improving the security of control systems must be one of the prime considerations in creating a new energy infrastructure.
Read more about the challenges facing the development of a smart grid:

Industry working to address smart grid security threats

The National Clean Energy Smart Grid: An Economic, Environmental, and National Security Imperative

FERC proposes policy and action plan to accelerate smart grid development in U.S.

Wired for Progress 2.0: Building a National Clean-Energy Smart Grid

This is Part II of III related posts:

Part I: The Smart Grid -- Electricity with a Brain
Part III: The Smart Grid -- Electric Cars Need Intelligent Power

The Smart Grid -- Part II: Implementing a National Clean-energy Smart Grid

There are four keys in the construction of a twenty-first century smart grid:
  • Good strategic planning -- Currently, the process of planning the grid is too fragmented and decentralized. There needs to be a coordinated and large-scale effort to establish new policies and mechanisms for upgrading technology and dramatically improving reliability, security and efficiency.
  •  
  • Positioning new power transmission lines -- A national smart grid will, by its very nature, cross state lines. So the national plan will require the coordinated efforts of individual states. That by itself is a major undertaking which will require the establishment of a "siting authority" that's comprised of states but independent of the federal government.
  •  
  • Funding the national smart grid -- Depending on who’s talking, a smart grid will cost as much a $2 trillion and as "little" as $100 billion. Most would come from power companies and private investors, but consumers will eventually foot the bill by paying more for electricity. But it's likely that the smart grid will lower the cost of energy. Over time and after a bit of pain, consumers will recover their investment.
  •  
  • Making the smart grid secure and reliable -- Today's electric grids make good targets for malicious individuals and groups. Smart grids, which will be highly complex and interconnected from coast to coast, will be particularly attractive to troublemakers, large and small. So, improving the security of control systems must be one of the prime considerations in creating a new energy infrastructure.
Read more about the challenges facing the development of a smart grid:

Industry working to address smart grid security threats

The National Clean Energy Smart Grid: An Economic, Environmental, and National Security Imperative

FERC proposes policy and action plan to accelerate smart grid development in U.S.

Wired for Progress 2.0: Building a National Clean-Energy Smart Grid

This is Part II of III related posts:

Part I: The Smart Grid -- Electricity with a Brain
Part III: The Smart Grid -- Electric Cars Need Intelligent Power

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Smart Grid -- Part I: Electricity with a Brain


Electricity is pretty stupid. It can’t do anything by itself -- we have to tell it what to do, when to do it, where to go and how. We haven't done that very well. Today’s electricity comes from a grid with central generating stations and electromechanical power delivery systems operated from control centers that Thomas Edison  and other nineteenth century electrical pioneers would find pretty familiar and unimpressive.

Their eyes might light up if we distributed electricity not from a "dumb system" but a smart grid -- a grid that relies on computer intelligence and automated networking, with components that would be able to talk and listen to each other. Right now, that's not the case. And it's costing us dearly -- the economic impact alone is significant.

Ian Hiskens, University of Michigan Vennema Professor of Engineering, has written that, according to various reports, "smart grid technology will save consumers $49 billion per year, create 280,000 jobs."

So building a smart grid is critical to economic recovery. To that end, the Obama administration's $787 billion stimulus contains $11 billion for smart grid technology -- the single largest investment in the entire stimulus package. In a recent speech at George Mason University, US President Barack Obama said he wanted to build a "smart" electric grid that would deliver "clean, alternative forms of energy to every corner of our nation."

Money aside, a smart grid would also keep customers happy, homes cool or warm, and businesses humming. The stupid grid? Not so much. For example, there are areas where a customer has to call about a power outage in order for a power company to be aware of the problem. A smart grid, however, would know immediately that something had interrupted service – the smart grid might have "smart meters" that "listen" to the flow of electricity and begin to "talk" to the company when the cables go quiet. If components of an electrical grid were to have IP addresses and could listen and talk, it would be smart enough to help companies distribute electricity efficiently. They could respond quickly to outages and other problems. And they could maintain the grid more easily because it could tell them where all of its aches and pains were.

Without a smart grid, any electricity we might produce from renewable sources -- wind farms and solar plants, for instance -- would flow into our long outdated grid system, which might be like pouring champagne into an old boot.

We’re already wasting our wind and solar electrical production because our grid can't move it where it's needed. Right now, wind, solar and other non-hydro renewable sources generate only two percent of the nation's electricity, so we’re not really seeing how our aging grid is wasting what we produce. But if our renewable energy sources begin to produce energy that, if used to its full potential, would account for 15 percent to 20 percent of our total electric energy, then we'd need a smart grid to make that possible. A grid of that sort would also require a "transmission backbone" -- a high-voltage cross-country pipeline -- to move solar and wind power from the Midwest and Southwest (the best sites for wind production) to highly populated areas.

According to the United Stated Department of Energy, four types of technology will drive the advancement of smart grids:

Those are just a a few of the challenges that engineers must overcome -- within a handful or years, not decades -- if we are to succeed in not only generating electricity from renewable sources but also using it to its full potential.

    This is Part I of III related posts. 


    Part II: The Smart Grid -- Implementing a National Clean-energy Smart Grid

    Read more:

    The Smart Grid: An Introduction (PDF, 4.4MB)

    20% Wind Energy by 2030 (PDF, 9MB)

    Stimulus Bill Has Billions for Smart Grids















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    The Smart Grid -- Part I: Electricity with a Brain


    Electricity is pretty stupid. It can’t do anything by itself -- we have to tell it what to do, when to do it, where to go and how. We haven't done that very well. Today’s electricity comes from a grid with central generating stations and electromechanical power delivery systems operated from control centers that Thomas Edison  and other nineteenth century electrical pioneers would find pretty familiar and unimpressive.

    Their eyes might light up if we distributed electricity not from a "dumb system" but a smart grid -- a grid that relies on computer intelligence and automated networking, with components that would be able to talk and listen to each other. Right now, that's not the case. And it's costing us dearly -- the economic impact alone is significant.

    Ian Hiskens, University of Michigan Vennema Professor of Engineering, has written that, according to various reports, "smart grid technology will save consumers $49 billion per year, create 280,000 jobs."

    So building a smart grid is critical to economic recovery. To that end, the Obama administration's $787 billion stimulus contains $11 billion for smart grid technology -- the single largest investment in the entire stimulus package. In a recent speech at George Mason University, US President Barack Obama said he wanted to build a "smart" electric grid that would deliver "clean, alternative forms of energy to every corner of our nation."

    Money aside, a smart grid would also keep customers happy, homes cool or warm, and businesses humming. The stupid grid? Not so much. For example, there are areas where a customer has to call about a power outage in order for a power company to be aware of the problem. A smart grid, however, would know immediately that something had interrupted service – the smart grid might have "smart meters" that "listen" to the flow of electricity and begin to "talk" to the company when the cables go quiet. If components of an electrical grid were to have IP addresses and could listen and talk, it would be smart enough to help companies distribute electricity efficiently. They could respond quickly to outages and other problems. And they could maintain the grid more easily because it could tell them where all of its aches and pains were.

    Without a smart grid, any electricity we might produce from renewable sources -- wind farms and solar plants, for instance -- would flow into our long outdated grid system, which might be like pouring champagne into an old boot.

    We’re already wasting our wind and solar electrical production because our grid can't move it where it's needed. Right now, wind, solar and other non-hydro renewable sources generate only two percent of the nation's electricity, so we’re not really seeing how our aging grid is wasting what we produce. But if our renewable energy sources begin to produce energy that, if used to its full potential, would account for 15 percent to 20 percent of our total electric energy, then we'd need a smart grid to make that possible. A grid of that sort would also require a "transmission backbone" -- a high-voltage cross-country pipeline -- to move solar and wind power from the Midwest and Southwest (the best sites for wind production) to highly populated areas.

    According to the United Stated Department of Energy, four types of technology will drive the advancement of smart grids:

    Those are just a a few of the challenges that engineers must overcome -- within a handful or years, not decades -- if we are to succeed in not only generating electricity from renewable sources but also using it to its full potential.

      This is Part I of III related posts. 


      Part II: The Smart Grid -- Implementing a National Clean-energy Smart Grid

      Read more:

      The Smart Grid: An Introduction (PDF, 4.4MB)

      20% Wind Energy by 2030 (PDF, 9MB)

      Stimulus Bill Has Billions for Smart Grids















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