02 March 2009

Smart Grids: An Important First Step

In recent posts, I have spent time discussing some alternatives to traditional sources of electricity, and weighed the costs and benefits of a few of those currently under development. As these entries pointed out, advances in this field are becoming more and more possible due to the benevolent political environment ushered in by Barack Obama's inauguration and evidenced by the stimulus package's provisions for a new, greener energy sector. I have no doubts that Obama's policies will push these technologies forward. However, I do believe that this transition will be a long and difficult one and that America must do whatever it can to continue in this direction at every moment. It is for this reason that a General Electric commercial (see left) advertising "smart grids" caught my eye in the past week. Further research led me to a CNN article that gave me a better understanding of what smart grids can do: increase America's energy efficiency, thereby reducing both its impact on the environment as well as its dependence on foreign oil. The argument is simple and to the point. Smart grids lower the amount of electricity wasted, significantly cutting down on the total amount that America uses. But how useful will these grids be, and will they really affect or greatly change America's energy industry? Additionally, what effects will they have on alternative energy sources? By discussing the CNN article and this new technology in general, I will show that each of these questions yields a positive answer. Smart grid governance will restructure individual Americans' experiences, lowering cost and increasing public participation in the industry, all the while making it easier for alternative energy to gain a bigger edge in the market.

Let us tackle these questions one at a time, beginning with the question of utility. The CNN article states that smart grids use digital methods to distribute electricity more efficiently. The benefits of such a change are immense: "According to research sponsored by the U.S. Government, improving the efficiency of the national electricity grid by 5 per cent would be the equivalent of eliminating the fuel use and carbon emissions of 53 million cars." This is a staggering statistic, especially when we combine it with GE's data that utilization of the technology in question by only 50% of American homes would result in a CO2 reduction of over 18 million tons-an amount that some countries could not even imagine emitting, let alone cutting. If we define these efforts as important, which we must, then smart grids are extremely useful. Second, full implementation of these grids will greatly alter the way Americans interact with their energy companies. In addition to inherently lower costs, consumers that produce electricity on their own, such as those with solar panels on their roof (see right) or even a coal furnace in their home, will be able to sell any power they produce in home back to the grid. This surely changes the nature of consumption, but the technology goes even further. Homeowners will have the ability to monitor their energy usage and determine what amount each appliance or object in their home is utilizing by checking their smart meters, allowing for more cost-efficient lifestyles. At a fundamental level, too, smart grids will also require massive restructuring of the existing grid system, needing nation-wide changes and participation to be truly effective; it is not as impressive on a micro-scale. Lastly, and in view of this blog’s main topic, we must consider what smart grids can do for alternative energy. The CNN article explains that one of the major contributions is the decentralization of the industry, making each source of power, regardless of type or size, regionally important. Indeed, CNN writes, “your future home would be as likely to be powered by electricity from a neighbor's roof-top solar panel, or a biomass generator on the edge of town, as from a traditional power plant 50 or 100 miles away.” As others have written, the smart grid’s storage capabilities also dispel concerns about alternative energy’s reliability, a problem I have previously discussed, by essentially saving up what is not used.

It is at this point that I wish to bring other dimensions to the discussion. In particular, combining this strategy with other alternative energy projects will make for a comprehensively effective way to combat global warming and reduce America’s carbon emissions. A recent article shows how individual electric cars may some day influence the amount of power surging through a grid, making them one of the potential sources to power a microwave or refrigerator at home. Indeed, industry experts and businesspeople in Michigan found the relationship between electric cars and smart grid technology so compelling that they held a forum guided by an exploration of this connection and the effect it will have on Michigan’s future. Others still are investigating how to directly associate wind power’s input with electric cars’ strain on grids, using smart grid technology to enhance efficiency and better manage fluctuations in production and consumption. There are undoubtedly additional direct connections under research, and a consideration of the relationship at a basic level-electric grid, electric vehicle-reveals a strong case for continuing such research. Indeed, breaking America’s foreign oil dependency may not only prove environmentally helpful, but it is possible that it will actually enhance its security as well, as Thomas L. Friedman argues in the April 15, 2007 issue of New York Times Magazine. After detailing numerous reasons why smart grids are useful and how they will change the face of the energy industry while enhancing the prospects for alternative energy, however, I wish to close by returning to recurring theme in previous posts: continuing development in this sector will provide more jobs for a struggling American economy. The CNN article also supports this argument, specifically stating that “every $1 billion in government spending would lead to approximately 30,000 jobs per year.” Unfortunately, a theory that has been offered in the past to explain why alternative energy has not caught on is one that I subscribe to: people do not understand new technologies and do not want to support them because of it. This, too, is a concern detailed in the article, but it is my hope that smart grid technology will catch on as it is fundamentally an improvement of existing infrastructure. With so many concrete benefits, it would be foolish not to support these measures.


  1. After reading your post, the issue of efficient energy and its importance on our national outlook is clear. Showing the ties that energy consumption and production have to the environment, our economy, and even our national security puts energy use in an appropriately significant light, and being exposed to “smart grids,” a concept of which I had no previous knowledge, leaves me better prepared to engage in the debate of possibilities for America’s future. The smart grid is presented as a realistic opportunity for conservation of resources through creative engineering; furthermore, these grids present the chance to reduce misuse of resources through that most economical concept of efficiency. Cultivating the agreement of the effectiveness of this new electrical frontier in the American media is as important as the technology itself, as you touch on towards the end of your post; through clearly illustrating the capabilities of smart grids, you are engaging in an important part of the process of policy. Also, your second graphic of solar panels being installed on a private home is useful like your arguments: providing an image of these in real life informs me in a way words cannot.

    The strength of your efforts in bringing this to a wider attention also allow for some questions regarding issues that you bring up: specifically, when you argue, “people do not understand new technologies and do not want to support them because of it,” what is the most effective way to increase the understanding of the general populace regarding new smart grids? Is it very important for the American population as a whole to have a sufficient amount of knowledge about where their electricity comes from, or should/can it be left to policy-makers and specialized engineers? Also, this seems to be a massive infrastructural undertaking: what are the costs as compared to the benefits you describe? How realistic are smart grids really, and is there a timetable? Proceeding from here is the biggest challenge.


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