A dummy's guide to the "smart grid"Wind turbines and solar panels may be the sexy, new stars of a clean energy future, but they'll be nothing but a side note unless the grid that they're plugged into receives* a much-needed makeover.While it's widely noted that a new, national "smart grid" is a fundamental step in the spread of clean, renewable energy projects, there's little chatter about building the grid itself. Why? Well, as Worldchanging founder Alex Steffen notes: infrastructure is boring. He has a point, but we better start talking.Last month I listened to a panel of energy experts explain to the New York City Council's Infrastructure Task Force that Gotham's grid simply couldn't handle a proposed new supply of electricity flowing in from rooftop solar and offshore wind. Why? Because our current grid is dumb and wildly inefficient.A blind system of transmission lines and converters, today's grid funnels electricity one-way-from big centralized power plants to our factories, streetlights, shops, and homes. The utilities can't detect fluctuations in energy demand; so, to ensure there are no shortages, the power plants run at full tilt, burning greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels around the clock. Not to mention, there is a lot of juice lost from coal-fired plant to the socket--5 to 10 percent due to "line loss" in the transmission wires alone. It's also dreadfully vulnerable to disruptions, whether a break in the system-like a heavy branch taking down a roadside line-or an influx of power from an unexpected source. That's bad news anyone who wants to plug his solar panels and sell electricity back to the grid.The Internet of electricity- Al Gore coined the term "electranet" in an op-ed for Newsweek a couple years back-a smart grid would be networks, microprocessors and digital sensing technologies, a "web" of clever, hi-tech components that will be as flexible as it is intelligent. (The Wall Street Journal recently drew up a handy interactive model of such a system.) Supercomputers will let the utilities predict and manage system-wide demand and capacity, with batteries and other storage mechanisms ensuring that there's always enough power to handle consumers' needs. Power from distributed carbon-free sources such as rooftop solar, wind turbines, and combined heat and power systems will feed into the grid without causing breakdowns, so customers will be able to buy electricity for their homes and businesses, as well as sell power they generate back. "Smart meters" in buildings and homes will show the real-time cost of energy and assure that those that energy contributed to the grid-whether from a suburban family with photovoltaic panels on its roof or a Great Plains rancher with a wind turbine-receive payment. These distributed energy sources will require power to travel less distance, eliminating some electricity waste or "line loss." Finally, internal building controls will adjust power demand, and new substations will take feedback from sensors along the transmission lines to better route electricity flow.The smart grid won't only be able to handle plug-in hybrids (the most realistic "car of the future" candidate), it'll benefit from them. A national fleet of hybrid batteries will help provide storage capacity that our current distribution system sorely lacks. This is a key point: Solar and wind sources produce electricity in spurts-when the sun is highest, when the wind blows hardest. When you plug in your 2012 Volkswagen Golf Hybrid, its battery-along with all the others plugged-in around your neighborhood-will draw power when there's plenty, and pump it out when the grid is lacking. (And don't worry about your neighbor's gaudy Christmas light display sucking your car dry-that's why we'll have smart computers.)Can such an integrated, comprehensive system ever actually get built? Ask the people of Boulder, Col., which Xcel Energy announced earlier this year--through this campy video-would be the nation's first "Smart Grid City." There's also heavy speculation floating of late that Google is going to train its brains on the grid. Last year the Internet giant announced an ambitious initiative to make "renewable energy cheaper than coal" (RE<C), which includes investments in a number of clean energy startups and labs whose innovations will ultimately rely on a new, smarter infrastructure.But, before Google, or anyone else, can usher us closer toward a clean energy future, this mythical, digital backbone for the energy technology revolution-the smart grid-needs to become a reality.(Photo: Xcel Energy) *CORRECTION: This sentence originally read: "Wind turbines and solar panels may be the sexy, new stars of a clean energy future, but they'll be nothing but a side note unless the grid that powers them gets a much-needed makeover."The error took place during editing. We regret the mistake.