There was a time when moving electricity didn't require brains — just dumb "pipes" in the form of electrical lines that carried it from power plants to customers. It was a simple system, but definitely not smart.

The only way to tell how much power someone used was to go to their home and read the meter. When there was a power outage, crews were dispatched by truck or helicopter to look for a downed power line. And hooking up a new cluster of wind turbines or a few solar panels to feed into the grid was more or less impossible, because the grid's management system couldn't handle the fluctuations in the power supply when the sun stopped shining or the wind died.

Recently, North American governments have begun embracing the idea of modernizing their grids into something more 21st century-esque — a "smart grid" in which all parts can be monitored and controlled remotely, and in which customers can feed their own wind, solar and biomass  power back into the system.

Not only will the smart grid make it easier to make use of small, renewable power sources and respond to outages, but governments hope the exchange of information between customers and utilities will help encourage people to reduce their power consumption  during peak hours.

Here are some of the key ways the smart grid could interact with a typical home:


Image courtesy of Hydro One; text by CBC News


Of course, with new technology comes new concerns.

As is often the case, privacy is one of the big ones — the smart grid gives utilities far more information about people's personal habits than they ever had before. Ontario's privacy commissioner is among those who have expressed concerns about utilities knowing when people cook, shower or sleep.

Meanwhile, some experts have warned that the smart technology could make the grid a target for cyber attacks. In 2009, a report surfaced that spies hacked into the U.S. electric grid and left behind mechanisms that would allow them to disrupt service.

Nevertheless, many jurisdictions are marching ahead with their smart grid plans.

The U.S. federal government has committed $4.5 billion to upgrading to a smart grid. In Canada, millions of smart meters are being installed and large sums are being spent to upgrade other parts of the power system in OntarioB.C., Quebec and Alberta. New Brunswick is researching smart meter technology. And even Summerside, P.E.I., a town of just 16,000, is trying out smart meters in an effort to help residents take advantage of local wind power on gusty days.