Energy & Sustainability Science
Smart grids, smart metering, and Make: Green


By now, you’ve probably seen those ads on television, those undeniably cool, impressive ads, for GE’s Smart Grid technology, using augmented reality. The purpose of these ad is to get your attention with some wow-factor so you’ll pay attention to the message, and visit their website — sure it’s about General Electric and their smart grid products, but the ads are also trying to raise public awareness about smart grid technology in general and specific technological components of it, such as smart metering. Retooling the power grid, here in the US, and abroad, is going to take a huge, concerted effort, on the part of governments, industry, and the public. So companies like GE are looking to get consumers conversant with the issues and technologies involved. What are we talking about? A little background:

Smart Grid
This introduction, from Northwestern University’s Science in Society page, does a great job of succinctly describing what the smart grid is:

Traditionally, to meet growing electricity demands, we have simply built more power plants and added lines to distribute the power to customers. But these improvements are expensive, costing up to $2,000 per kilowatt of capacity. To put that in perspective, the average home consumes around 2 kilowatts of power per hour, so building to serve just 1,000 homes could cost $4 million.

Building more power plants is also not an environmentally-friendly approach to the increasing demand for electricity. Instead of producing more energy, could the solution be to revise the current power distribution network and markets to use the energy we have more efficiently, and harness renewable energy resources such as wind and solar power?

Proponents of “smart grid” technologies think so. “Smart grid” refers to applying communication and information technologies to the nation’s power grid system–a complex network that routes electricity from the energy utilities to the consumers


The grid as it exists today was originally designed more than fifty years ago, long before the proliferation of computer and telecommunication systems we rely on today. The stresses that our increased power needs exert on the grid are shown through unreliable service and blackouts, which pose significant economic and safety threats to our society.

Smart grids offer a number of improvements, including some that automatically monitor and evaluate grid conditions, and report these conditions back to the utility’s control room. Devices on the network can communicate with each other to automate re-routing and switching to avoid power lines with faults, and detect and even repair faults in wires before they lead to outages.

Smart Metering
One of the key technology components to the smart grid is what’s called “smart metering.” The Northwestern University’s Science in Society page explains this basic concept too:

The smart grid also introduces a new level of communication between the consumer and the power suppliers. The current interface between the suppliers and the customer is the meter, which has remained basically the same, technologically-speaking, for the past century, and cannot communicate information to or from the consumer. Smart grids, however, allow power companies and consumers to gather precise information about the quantity and timing of household consumption, and enable consumers to receive information, such as real-time pricing and emergency grid requests to lower energy consumption.

For the next six weeks, GE is going to be sponsoring a special Make: Green microsite here on Make: Online. It’s an opportunity for us to talk about these issues and technologies in general (GE has no input in the editorial content) and to talk to GE engineers and scientists (if YOU the reader want to) about smart grid in general, and some of the specific things that GE is developing in this area. We’ll also be posting about augmented reality, so if you have questions related to GE’s AR ad campaign, ask about that, too. Feel free to post any questions you might have on this emerging energy technologies in the Comments, and we’ll try to find the engineers and scientists who can answer them.

If you want to gather some background information, here are some resources to get you going:

And don’t forget, we want to cover these activities from a uniquely MAKE perspective, so if you’re building any sort of “smart meter” on your own, a la Adafruit’s Tweet-a-Watt, or similar, or are using digital technology and embedded systems to monitor/control your energy usage, we’d love to hear about that.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series of posts sponsored by GE. GE had nothing to do with the content of the article and no control over Make: Online editorial. -Gareth

GE imagination at work

Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. And he has a new best-of writing collection and “lazy man’s memoir,” called Borg Like Me.

View more articles by Gareth Branwyn