It's basically a footnote in history at this point, but we recently passed the 5-year anniversary of the Great Northeast Blackout of 2003. Remember that? It plunged NYC into darnkness, briefly returning the city to a pre-industrial age. Ok, not really that extreme.
I wasn't in New York at the time. In Austin, TX we weren't affected by it. But in a way it made me nostalgic for summer blackouts, quietness, and sitting outside on the stoop at all hours, just passing the time with nothing to do.
Anyway, Lynne Kiesling, top notch economist and energy commentator has a good post looking at where we stand five years after the blackout:
The Scientific American article also talks about the development and installation of phasor measurement units, which provide distributed monitoring of voltage and current and use GPS to generate reliable time-stamped data on physical network conditions. It talks about these PMUs in the context of discussing how smart grid technologies are the "holy grail" of reducing the incidence and magnitude of future blackouts. That is certainly correct; both transmission-level PMUs and distribution-level technologies for distribution automation and sensing will reduce the incidence and magnitude of blackouts. Most blackouts occur in the local distribution network, not in the larger high-voltage transmission network.
While I think this Scientific American article is pretty good, it does focus disproportionately on the use of smart grid technology for distributed sensing and monitoring, particularly in the transmission network. Sure, that will generate benefits. But the real value, the real promise of smart grid technology with respect to reducing the incidence and magnitude of blackouts is how smart grid technologies work together to enable consumers to change their electricity use, particularly in respond to price signals, when strain on the network is highest. Decentralized coordination of individual demand via price signals and automation technology promotes reliability, and it does so in a very granular way that disrupts the everyday activities of consumers only minimally (and gives them economic incentives to change their behavior, so they benefit from the disruption!).