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Pratt explains that since there is virtually no battery storage within the grid, if a power station goes off line, there is a sudden decrease in the frequency of power that’s sent to each home, which creates a strain on the grid. While these strains don’t necessarily lead to blackouts, grid-friendly appliances could potentially offset the grid strain that caused the 2003 blackout in the Northeastern U.S. and Canada. By allowing the dryer to monitor electricity load, Pratt says, the researchers have “put a brain on board an appliance that was previously dumb as a stone.”

He admits, however, that there is some skepticism about the Grid Friendly Appliance project. Since the power grid relies on a balance of supply and demand, some people question whether dropping appliances off the grid will add further instability. While the chip has been designed to minimize shocking the grid, by delaying the shutting off a dryer’s heating element and turning it back on randomly across a region, the “jury’s still out” on how well it will work, says Carl Hauser, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Washington State University in Pullman, who’s a researcher on a project called GridStat.

Despite the skepticism, Pratt says that so far the results are encouraging, although the final results will be available only sometime next year. Ideally, he says, both PNNL projects would be combined so that the Grid Friendly Appliance Project could be networked to the Internet and take advantage of real-time pricing of electricity.

GridWise tackles one aspect of modern grid research, says Hauser; there are numerous other projects with similar goals. Each aims to incorporate information technology into the grid in slightly different ways, he says. For instance, Hauser’s GridStat research involves developing an Internet-like communication infrastructure between power stations and transmission lines, addressing grid stability from the utility company’s side, as opposed to GridWise’s customer orientation.

There are businesses looking into ways to reduce the stress on the nation’s power grids. One company, GridPoint, recently began selling a product that monitors power consumption on household circuits and, using Internet-based communication, adjusts the amount of electricity they use.

Everyone agrees that projects such as GridWise could help overcome some of the barriers to overhauling the electricity infrastructure in the United States. But it’s a challenging task, which will take researchers, technology companies, utility companies, and policy-makers working together for five to ten years to implement, says Don von Dollen, program manager of IntelliGrid, a project with a vision similar to GridWise. “I believe that [PNNL’s research] is going to be important,” he says. “It’s a fundamental change in the way the systems operate and how consumers are integrated into the system.”

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