It’s no secret: hybrid cars are sexy. They save on gas, they reduce carbon emissions and Justin Timberlake drives one. They have arguably been thought of as the most accessible vehicle, so to speak, to reduce greenhouse gases without infringing on our lifestyle. But while it may be the most seductive means to lower our carbon footprint, it’s certainly not the smartest.
There’s something else that emits far more carbon than cars but, if we improve it, it also has the potential to reduce even more greenhouse gases than buying a hybrid or taking public transportation. It’s called electricity. Our electricity sector emits twice as much carbon as our transportation sector—accounting for 40 percent of America’s total carbon emissions. But the good thing is that it doesn’t have to. That is, as long we make it smarter.
By implementing Smart Grid technology such as smart meters we can have a more advanced and efficient electricity transmission network than our current outdated one. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, if the grid were just five percent more efficient the energy savings would be the equivalent of taking 53 million cars off the road. In addition, it would increase our ability to distribute renewable energy and could reduce electricity consumption by five to ten percent, carbon dioxide emissions by 13-25 percent and the cost of power-related disturbances to businesses ($150 billion per year) by 87 percent.
Smart Grid supporters hope to use innovative technologies to improve communication between the electricity grid, meters and consumers. As the system stands now, most of us, as energy consumers, don’t know the details of our energy costs or consumption. How can we effectively lower our electricity use if we can’t monitor it? We need to know the specifics of our energy use to see where we can cut back. This detailed information could be provided by smart meters, enabling us to be active participants in our electricity grid rather than passive consumers.
Studies have found that when consumers have detailed information about their energy use (a la the smart meter), they can reduce energy consumption up to ten percent. Essentially, it gives consumers the incentive to improve their energy efficiency and helps balance the grid by encouraging people lower their energy use during peak hours. And using less energy means saving more money and lowering carbon emissions.
That’s the less controversial side of the Smart Grid.
The more divisive component of the Smart Grid has to do with who gets access to our electricity use information and whether or not utilities will ultimately control our appliances. In the Smart Grid world, meters and the grid would be able to transmit real-time information with each other, making the grid more energy efficient, but also relaying detailed information to utilities—worrying some people about privacy and control issues. Though it remains to be seen how exactly this would play out as nothing is set in stone at the moment.
Without a more efficient and intelligent grid, we will continue to emit unnecessary amounts of greenhouse gases and lose our ability to be competitive in the international energy market. There is reasonable fear that without a Smart Grid, renewable energies like wind and solar will remain a niche market and the clean energy revolution will slip through our fingers. As former Vice President Al Gore recently proclaimed in his keynote address at the GreenBeat 2009 Conference on the Smart Grid: “The Smart Grid is as important to the clean energy revolution as the Internet was to the information age.” Just as the Internet provided a new system for information exchange and spurred innovation and new business models, the Smart Grid has the potential to improve our energy distribution network and create similar opportunities for innovation.
We’re in a time when innovation in clean technology is key, and how exactly the new grid will roll out is yet to be determined. What comes next doesn’t need to be sexy—it needs to be smart.