Multi-agent systems are a subject of continuously increasing interest in applied technical sciences. Smart grids are one evolving field of application. Numerous smart grid projects with various interpretations of multi-agent systems as new control concept arose in the last decade. Although several theoretical definitions of the term ‘agent’ exist, there is a lack of practical understanding that might be improved by clearly distinguishing the agent technologies from other state-of-the-art control technologies. In this paper we clarify the differences between controllers, optimizers, learning systems, and agents. Further, we review most recent smart grid projects, and contrast their interpretations with our understanding of agents and multi-agent systems. We point out that multi-agent systems applied in the smart grid can add value when they are understood as fully distributed networks of control entities embedded in dynamic grid environments; able to operate in a cooperative manner and to automatically (re-)configure themselves.