This new smart grid would cost about $400 billion over 10 years but would save between $46 billion and $117 billion over the next 20 years by reducing inefficiencies and power failures, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. It also would help to make us less dependent on imported energy and to reduce climate change. For example, if the smart grid were even 5 percent more efficient, it would keep as many carbon emissions from the atmosphere as eliminating 53 million cars.
A smart grid allows power from residential solar panels, small wind turbines, and plug-in electric vehicles to be fed into the grid. This would encourage the green energy industry by allowing small players, such as individual homes and small businesses, to sell power to their neighbors or back to the grid. It would provide another source of income for larger commercial businesses that have renewable or backup power systems that can provide clean energy for a price during peak demand, such as midday in July when the air conditioning is cranked.
Another brilliant feature of the proposed grid is the potential to use cars to store electricity and then feed it back into the grid during times of peak demand. "Vehicle to grid," or V2G, technology helps balance energy loads by "valley filling" (charging at night, when demand is low) and "peak shaving" (sending power back to the grid when demand is high). This would help utility companies keep voltage and regulation stabler. It would be especially useful when more of our power came from intermittent power sources, such as solar panels, which only produce power during the day.
Power outages are less problematic for a smart grid because it quickly can isolate the problem and create energy pathways around it. This makes a smart grid "self-healing" by reducing power outages and saving money. Buried power lines also would reduce outages caused by harsh winter storms, when tree branches are likely to down power lines. In my community, residents are concerned about proposed power lines that would stretch through the centers of many small downtowns and across lovely vistas. If these same lines were buried, there would be fewer objections from the community.
The smart grid could help consumers use that energy more wisely and save money, as well. A sensor in your home can tell you the price of electricity when the demand is highest. This allows you to set priorities so that you use more energy when the price is lower and less during peak demand. You also can find out which appliances are energy hogs and identify energy vampires that you may not have known about.
Austin, Texas, has been working on a smart grid since 2003, when its utility company first replaced a third of its manual meters with wireless smart meters. Austin currently manages 200,000 smart meters, smart thermostats and sensors across its service area and expects to be supporting 500,000 devices this year. Boulder, Colo., started a smart grid project in August 2008. The smart grid extends into homes through home automation network devices. These devices automatically set thermostats, reduce energy loads during peak times, and shut off lights in rooms when no one is in them.
By investing in our infrastructure, we also would stimulate economic growth and increase green jobs. Thousands of people would be put to work across the country designing, building and installing smart grid technology. Having the grid in place would make electric cars more feasible and affordable. Renewable energy would become more viable, and demand would increase as more electric cars were added to the grid. It also would bring the price of home- and business-scaled renewable power systems down because the payback periods would decrease. Businesses may make tidy profits by selling excess power back to the grid.
Want to learn more about the smart grid? The U.S. Department of Energy has an easy-to-understand publication you can download online called "The Smart Grid: An Introduction." The DOE is conducting a series of smart grid e-forums to discuss issues surrounding the smart grid, including costs, benefits, implementation and deployment.
Shawn Dell Joyce is an award-winning sustainable activist and director of the Wallkill River School in Orange County, N.Y. You can contact her at [email protected]