Smart energy grids are electrical power's killer ap. Smart grids manage supply from a variety of distributed sources - conventional power plants, but also solar, wind and hydro plants as well as people's home energy systems. They not only help prevent blackouts, they actively encourage alternative energy. Smarter, better, greener.
Pat Mazza, an old worldchanging buddy, has written an excellent paper explaining what smart energy is and how it works (PDF):
"Electrical power is entering its greatest revolution in a century, one that compares to Thomas Edison's creation of the world's first electrical grids and George Westinghouse's origination of long-distance power transmission.
"A dizzying array of new energy technologies are reaching or nearing the marketplace. Newer choices to generate electricity include fuel cells, wind turbines, solar cells and microturbines. Energy storage is approaching practicality, for example through reversible fuel cells and flywheels. Under development are smart home appliances that can sense and adjust to grid conditions and commercial heating-ventilation-air conditioning systems that allow remote diagnosis and control.
"In the background is the most powerful energy technology of all, the microprocessor. ...Perhaps the most important message about the energy technology revolution is that, remarkable as each of the new devices is on its own, their value is fully unleashed only when they are linked together in coherent systems. Information technology represents the connective tissue."
But Pat's also just laid at our doorstep news of how smart energy is taking off (again, PDF) in the American Pacific Northwest:
"It is a budding Northwest tech sector composed of at least 225 firms with $2 billion in yearly revenues. It is a globally significant player in a rapidly growing new industry that has now reached $15 billion annually. It counts among its ranks world leaders and a host of innovative start-ups. Within 20 years it could rival such other major Northwest sectors as aerospace and microprocessors in terms of employment and revenues. It is Smart Energy, the application of computer technology to the electrical power grid."
This all rocks pretty hard, but it gets downright seismic when you start to consider the implications for the developing world, where there is often no grid worth speaking of to replace. There, if we can get the price down enough, distributed energy and smart grids could do for power what cellphones have done for communications - leapfrog entire regions right over the 20th Century and into the 21st.
Just as a historical note; Edison's first power grids were exceedingly dangerous DC grids, and Westinghouses tri-phase AC was invented by Nikola Tesla.