Who says the Smart Grid is a new idea?

Back in the time of Thomas Edison, the first electric meters merely measured how much current was used between readings, much the way the electric meter on your house still works. That changed when electricity magnate Samuel Insull found an inventor who had come up with a meter also able to track when electricity was used.

Historians might someday relate Smart Grid ideas to Insull's more intelligent metering. The first year the new demand-tracking meter went into service in Chicago, electric rates dropped 32% and demand soared. By 1910 one Chicago household in six was electrified and by the 1920s, gaslights were all but extinct.

The price of electricity got down to point where it made sense to install numerous small electric motors on machines and home appliances. Electric motors were more efficient than the steam engines that powered nineteenth century factories. So productivity climbed precipitously, increasing output per worker by about 22% in the 1920s.

Fast forward to the year 2009. Once again, we have some interesting ideas about how to better manage electricity and boost efficiency. The magazine you are now reading is one outcome of this trend. In the coming months we will deliver new ideas that engineers need to know about to design efficient products and processes. We'll also explore the energy related technologies that are exciting the imaginations of scientists and engineers worldwide.

And speaking of exciting ideas, let's reflect a moment on LEDs. About two years ago, GE hosted a press event that included an advanced look at a new incandescent bulb it was developing. The bulb's claim to fame was an efficiency level equal or better than that of compact fluorescent lights, but without the few milligrams of mercury that coat the inside of every CFL tube.

Today, GE has ash-canned the incandescent bulb project. It is instead concentrating on LEDs, apparently because its engineers were making such rapid progress there that the handwriting was on the wall for improved versions of incandescents.

The economical production of solid-state lighting promises to be a game-changing event. It will likely be helped along by developments coming out of the L Prize competition, an event patterned after the Ansari X Prize quest that put SpaceShipOne at the edge of the atmosphere.

You can read more about the L Prize in this issue, but you won't read about the attitudes among LED companies that we encountered as we looked into L Prize activities: More than one group smugly told us they had a lock on the Prize, and that their main concern was in figuring out how to best protect the L-Prize intellectual property they'd devised.

This sort of cockiness makes us think either the Prize criteria was set too low or there are a few groups around Silicon Valley that are about to receive the kind of lesson dished out to overconfident poker players holding trip aces when their hand falls to a straight.

The bigger fear about LEDs and other energy saving technology is that as good as they are, they won't overcome what's called the base problem: The old technology is paid for, so there is little reason to replace it until it wears out. That's the reason the Erie Canal carried freight until 1970 though it was obsoleted by railroads in the 1850s. Let's hope consumers 120 years from now will only know about incandescent bulbs by reading about them in history books.

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