The term “smart grid” is coming up a lot as the United States prepares to replace its aging electricity infrastructure. While President Barack Obama pledged $3.4 billion in 2009 to spur an early transition to the new distribution grid, Japan isn’t expected to follow anytime soon.

What are smart grids and how are they being addressed in Japan?

Following are some questions and answers about the future technological shift:

What is a smart grid?

A smart grid is a new electricity distribution system that will make greater use of power from both traditional and renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power, to stabilize supply and maximize efficiency.

Unlike conventional power grids, smart grids will automatically control supply and demand by monitoring two-way communications between producers and consumers.

This communications network will involve the use of a “smart meter” that estimates both power output and consumption at each household or company. The new technology will tell consumers when electricity demand, and hence prices, are at their highest, inducing them to reduce consumption at these times. It will also provide utilities with data they can use to regulate power supplies and balance output with consumption.

Smart grids also entail what is known as demand response, a technology that automatically regulates consumption when it peaks.

The technologies needed, however, depend on the target region or country.

In Japan, the focus will be on how to stabilize power supplies nationwide when large amounts of wind or solar power start entering the grid. This is because, unlike such conventional power sources as hydro, thermal and nuclear power, renewable energy is prone to the vagaries of the weather.

Why is the smart grid getting so much attention worldwide?

The grids are expected to drastically reduce carbon dioxide emissions when solar and wind energy become major sources of electricity, thus slowing global warming.

The outlook for the market is rosy.

According to marketing service Fuji Keizai Co., the global smart grid market is expected to be worth ¥5.8 trillion in 2020, almost a five-fold increase from the estimated ¥1.3 trillion in 2010.

The introduction of smart grids is expected to make electricity more dependable in the U.S. for companies and communities. In 2003, New York and several other cities in the Northeast were hit by blackouts that caused widespread problems. California in recent years has been forced to use “rolling blackouts” to deal with power shortages.

The U.S. Department of Energy said in 2009 that introducing smart grids will give consumers more energy-saving choices and increase efficiency.

Are people in Japan familiar with the smart grid concept?

The system has yet to gain currency here.

Just 36.4 percent of about 400 pollees aged from 20 to 70 nationwide said they understand what a smart grid is or have heard it mentioned, according to a survey released in December by advertising agency Hakuhodo Inc.

After being given an explanation of a smart grid, nearly 80 percent of the respondents said the concept sounded attractive.

Half said they support investing in the idea, and 67.8 percent said the government should pick up the tab if the system is adopted.

But about half of the pollees said it would take 15 years to get the ball rolling on the concept, while 6.5 percent said they don’t expect it to become reality at all.

Why is the smart grid concept not widely known here?

Experts suggest that the public doesn’t feel an urgent need to replace the current system.

In a country where the power supply is normally trouble-free and the average total blackout time for a year is only 5 minutes, compared with 80 minutes in the U.S., there just isn’t much incentive, according to the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization, a government-affiliated body.

In addition, Japanese electricity charges don’t fluctuate much throughout the day, whereas those in the U.S. vary hour by hour, depending on demand.

Also, wind and solar power, which are difficult to tap using traditional electricity grids, don’t have much of a presence here, compared with parts of Europe that employ both to a much larger degree.

Japanese businesses, on the other hand, are getting interested in smart grids because of their potential for profit.

The same Hakuhodo survey showed that about half of male respondents in their 30s, 40s and 50s either understand the smart grid concept or have heard about it.

In fact, the Smart Community Alliance, an industry group launched in April 2010, has attracted more than 500 local governments, universities and representatives from sectors ranging from utilities to information technology and electric machinery, said Hidenori Saka, a NEDO official.

What kind of trial projects are being carried out in Japan?

Toyota Motor Corp. last year began a two-year project with Japanese Wind Development, Panasonic Electric Works and Hitachi Ltd. in the village of Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, where wind power stations with large-capacity batteries were built several years ago.

The project involves a so-called smart grid village composed of six “smart houses” equipped with automatic electricity control systems, eight Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid vehicles and a battery system all powered exclusively by renewable energy sources and delinked from the national electricity grid.

Meanwhile, Nissan Motor Co. and four other manufacturers launched a five-year pilot project in Yokohama last year to develop a “smart city” where power is distributed to houses, buildings and electric vehicles through use of a renewable-energy-based infrastructure.

The other participants include Panasonic Corp., Toshiba Corp., Tokyo Electric Power Co., Tokyo Gas Co., Accenture’s Japan unit and Meidensha Corp.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk

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