In the future, refrigerators will talk to utility meters, meters will talk to electric companies and energy supply and demand will be more efficient.
At least that is the premise of smart grid technology, a term that is applied to a number of innovations that make energy distribution more responsive to changes in demand and better integrate a mix of energy sources. Ultimately, consumers may be able to time energy-intensive tasks for when rates are lower based on information they or their appliances receive from the electricity grid.
That sounds a little like science fiction now, but updates to the country's network are already taking place and utilities are looking at new ways to deliver power to consumers.
"What smart grid is, really, is communication," said Tom Erickson, a researcher at the Energy and Environmental Research Center at the University of North Dakota. "For the most part, the grid is already smart."
According to Erickson, the way electricity is delivered to consumers now results in a great amount of "spinning generation," roughly meaning a surplus of energy that is on hand to meet spikes in demand. Management of electrical loads generally err on the side of too much power on the grid rather than too little.
"We, as consumers, don't want brownouts or blackouts to occur," he said.
The system avoids interruptions, but it is not as efficient as it could be. Improvements in monitoring and communication about demand will allow utilities to put on the grid only as much power as is demanded at any moment. Smart grid improvements also will better integrate intermittent energy sources such as wind, and balance its supply with other power sources, such as coal-fired plants.
Utilities have adopted various pieces of smart grid innovations, and others will come several years down the line.
One place that is anticipating the new ways in which energy loads will be managed is Bismarck State College, which has received more than $1.5 million in grants to incorporate smart grid management into its programs at the National Energy Center of Excellence.
The energy center already has several small models of generation and distribution systems, but is adding a smart grid simulation laboratory and work force training programs. Students will work in the center's smart grid simulation, managing the generation models and learning to balance wind generation or steam turbine energy and respond to changing demands in the system.
"It runs the whole gamut from home to transmission system," said Zachery Allen, project manager at the energy center. "It's all consolidated together in one master control system."
BSC collaborates with several utility companies for technician training and the development of programs. Utilities are incorporating some smart grid improvements in what they do, but many of them will not be common for years to come, particularly in the area of consumer monitoring of energy use.
"There are a lot of paths converging into this thing called the smart grid," said Jeff Almen, manager of corporate strategy with the National Information Solutions Corp., which has offices in Mandan.
NISC is testing a program for a meter system with a Minnesota cooperative that collects data on consumer energy use and uses it to manage changes in demand for power. Utilities also can provide consumers with the data on their energy use and they can use it to time energy intensive tasks during less expensive, off-peak hours when power is cheaper.
"It's a good tool to have. The ability to put that intelligence out in the field really helps the consumer understand how energy is consumed," Almen said.
The ultimate application of the smart grid concept is the idea of energy consumers -- and their energy-intensive home appliances -- being able to respond to market signals through instantaneous data on demand in the power grid, and time certain tasks such as a refrigerator defrosting, for times of lower demand. That level of interaction between the energy user and energy provider will not occur for a while.
"That is still a number of years away," said Dennis Hill, head of the North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives. "I think that requires another level of technology investment."
(Reach reporter Christopher Bjorke at 250-8261 or email@example.com.)