The aging US electrical power grid is a security risk due to its centralized infrastructure, which leaves it open to failures on a massive scale (as seen during the Northeast Blackout of 2003, which left as many as 45 million people in eight U.S. states in the dark). The electrical power infrastructure of Europe is similarly antiquated, and needs to be upgraded if the EU is to attain its 20/20/20 goals of reducing carbon emissions by 20%, improving energy efficiency by 20% and increasing the use of renewable energy sources by 20%, all by the year 2020.

Updating and transforming current electrical networks into smart grids yields a number of benefits, according to a new study by NextGen Research, “Smart Grid Applications: Demand Response, Decentralized Generation and Smart Meters Increase Electrical Networks’ Capabilities, Efficiency and Reliability.” These include the capability for the grid to heal itself in the face of attack or failure, the opportunity to improve the efficiency of power generation and delivery, and the ability to provide greater flexibility in accessing power from distributed, renewable sources.

The study also observes that smart grid deployments bring with them new jobs, in areas ranging from installing new transmission and distribution lines to creating advanced energy management systems. Job creation is increasingly important during the currently troubled economic environment, to offset growing job losses in other sectors.

The study’s author, research analyst Atakan Ozbek, said utilities and governments around the world spent more than $12 billion upgrading, strengthening and “smartening up” their electrical power grids in 2008, an amount NextGen Research projects will grow to more than $33 billion through 2014. In light of growing governmental support and stimulus spending, Ozbek said, “We can expect the smart grid markets to take off in late 2009, but more realistically, from 2010 onward.”

Ozbek said that, while governments are allocating billions for upgrades to existing electrical networks to improve their reliability, interactive capabilities, and openness to renewable energy sources, a lack of `industry-wide smart grid standards is hindering the sector’s growth potential. “The early movers, like PG&E and Austin Energy, should take advantage of their early participation in the field to establish open standards,” which would allow smart grid deployments to progress more quickly, with predictable costs.