Brilliant minds—Nikola Tesla, Thomas A. Edison—and great engineers produced the marvel of the electric grid. It has united and fed the vast complex that is modern industrial and post-industrial society. But like the Scarecrow in Oz, the grid lacks a brain.

Advances in electronics, communication and information technology now are enabling engineers to give the grid a brain. In the last decade, grassroots initiatives have sprung up around the country to create what has come to be called the smart grid.

In a smart grid, sensors can anticipate system disturbances and respond to them before they cripple the system. Communication across the grid means a smart appliance might respond through a smart meter to time-of-day price information to schedule its consumption during periods of reduced demand. Demand-response software might bump an air conditioner’s thermostat up a notch during peak demand by prior agreement with the customer. A customer’s generator might be turned on automatically in response to price signals or by a command sent from the utility’s software to shave peak demand.

In theory, an effective smart grid could reduce the peaks and valleys in demand, thus reducing the need for construction of peaking capacity that would sit idle for most of the year.

But building momentum for the smart grid has been a challenge. Creating the grid requires coordination among electric utilities, capital-equipment suppliers, components makers, control-system manufacturers and appliance makers. It also requires standards that will reduce duplication of effort and allow complete interoperability and communication on the grid.

Smart-grid development has begun to make rapid progress as federal energy officials put orders in motion to build a strong foundation for the new system. In April, the National Institute of Standards and Technology tapped the Electric Power Research Institute to develop a smart-grid interoperability road map for the electricity sector. On May 18, the U.S. Depts. of Energy and Commerce announced they will fund development of smart-grid standards by NIST.