One of the best parts about being a journalist is you get asked — hell, you get paid — to explore subjects you might not have looked into otherwise. The best case in point for me is my story on the smart grid that is (finally) available online at emagazine.com.
Until editor Brita Belli asked me to write the story, I didn't know what a smart grid was, or how "dumb" our electrical grid is. In short, it is a one-way system: They make the electrons and ship them downstream on wires, but they don't have a way to know if they ever arrive! Think about it: If your power goes out, they won't know until someone calls them.
A smart grid will do many things, and I encourage you to read the story to get the full idea. (Actually, you could also read this story in Technology Review if you want the full story; it's very comprehensive.) But in short, you could think of the smart grid as the "energy internet," in which electrons and information both flow in two directions.
For example, the dryer at your house will be able to ping the grid robotically until energy is selling at the price you're willing to pay, which may not come until 3 a.m., when energy demand slackens and energy price falls.
Or, such a network would let the utilities sense what renewables are contributing to the grid, allowing them to send less downstream. Now, many states require utilities to purchase the energy generated by home wind turbines or solar cells and not needed at home. But since the utilities don't know who's sending what, they're generating just as much as if there were no such contributions, which means there's no expense reduction for utilities, and no CO2 reduction for anyone, even though renewable energy is being generated.
Not very smart, no?
I am now of the opinion that the smart grid will be one of the key, overwhelming changes of this century. Not only will we need to run vast distances of new lines, to transport Midwest wind electrons and Southwest solar electrons to where the people are, but the new lines — and all the existing ones, too — will have to support this new grid.