Our electrical devices may be 21st century, but the electrical grid we plug them into is strictly 20th. The grid is inefficient and prone to breakdowns as anyone who remembers the great East Coast blackout of 2003 would know. Improving the grid is going to be a vital part of helping clean energy scale up: better transmission lines are needed to carry wind-generated electricity from the middle of the U.S. to the more heavily populated coasts, for example, while a more flexible grid can better handle the intermittency of renewable power sources.
But the first installment on a smarter gird will be smarter meters. Right now the electric meter in your home tells you and the electric company only the most basic information. The majority of utilities won't even know that homes have lost power in a blackout until enough annoyed customers call them. But smart meters connected to a network can relay that sort of information instantly, giving utilities and customers alike a real-time picture of how much power is being used at any given moment. And as new appliances are networked into smart meters, we'll be able to use them much more efficiently programming our washing machines to run only during times of low power demand, say. By smoothing out the electricity demand curves, smart meters can help utilities get more out of the power plants they already have and avoid building more.