Get Smart: Reprogramming North America's Largest Machine

ReNew Canada is a Toronto-based infrastructure magazine with a strong focus on green and innovative design. I wrote an intro to smart grids in the Canadian context for their May - June issue. I've reposted it below.
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Science fiction author William Gibson once quipped that the future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed. Turn on your computer and you have a prime example. The electricity that powers it runs through a system whose basic principles haven’t changed in over 100 years.

Smart grids are now promising to help spread the future around a little more evenly. Think of them as the Internet for electricity. Modernized grids would integrate information technologies into the way we generate, transmit and use energy. The payback? More sustainable, reliable and efficient access to electricity. General Electric estimates that if 50 per cent of households in the United States installed smart meters (one basic component of a smart grid) resulting efficiencies would reduce CO2 emissions by 19 million tons.

But efficiency is only half the story. Smart grids lay the groundwork for more ambitious plans that would profoundly change the way we produce and use energy.

Our current energy system is an enormous one-way conversation: our electricity use tells utilities how much power we want; they either give it to us or the grid goes down. Making
the utilities’ job even more difficult is the fact that individual energy use is highly uneven. Home electricity use can increase by 700 per cent in the space of minutes as we arrive home to cook dinner, and by 300 per cent every time we boil a kettle of water. The end result is a costly and inefficient system. Generators have to be built, maintained and fuelled to meet these spikes and then idle for much of the rest of the day. Some estimates show that the top 10 per cent of our generation capacity is used as little as one per cent of the time.

Smart grids offer an alternative to this dysfunctional set-up. The new grid is made up of a series of components: Smart meters provide minute-by-minute billing, allowing the utility to give clients incentives to shift major appliance use to times when electricity is plentiful, and therefore cheaper. Smart-switching allows clients or utilities to automatically disable non-essential appliances at times when the grid is under strain. Visual displays mounted in your kitchen can show you when electricity prices are high, how much each of your appliances is using, and remind you to reconsider the way you are using power.

Overall, this helps even out energy use throughout the day and significantly reduces both peak energy demand and the increased generation capacity needed to meet it. Just making
the way we consume electricity more visible to us can reduce overall consumption by 15 per cent.

Evening the load is the most immediate impact of smart grids, but they open the door to much more. Smart meters allow customers to be paid for power that they feed back into the grid from, say, a solar panel on their roof or a local combined heat and power plant (CHP). They also synchronize the integration of all these small power producers into the grid. Combined with the right feed-in tariff incentives, this could cause a major shift. Instead of bringing electricity in from inefficient sources in the hinterlands, with all the associated transmission losses (up to five per cent in Ontario, and averages of 9.5 per cent nationally in the U.S.), it’s produced from a renewable energy system close to where it’s used.

Along with innovative financing mechanisms and a decrease in start-up costs for small-scale renewables, smart grids may push us into an era where homes and buildings will be both producers and consumers of energy.

The same technology that makes this possible also allows the grid to detect disturbances and reroute electricity to prevent cascading outages like the ones that closed down the Eastern Seaboard in 2003, and to heal itself after more minor disruptions.

People have been working with these technologies since the early 1990s. But only now are major developments underway, in part because of the U.S. administration’s $4.5-billion investment package for smart grids and Ontario’s plans for a Green Energy Act (see page 24).

How far these changes will go is anybody’s guess. Fundamentally, smart grids open up
the energy grid to innovation. Already, even more creative applications of smart grid technologies are being dreamt up: it’s rumoured that newly-formed vehicle leasing companies in the United States are working on energy systems in which idle electric vehicles act as storage for intermittent renewable. They could use what is essentially a fleet of mobile batteries to buy electricity from the grid when it’s cheap and sell it back later. As well as turning a profit, they’d be helping balance loads from distributed generation sources.

There are also large-scale plans to use smarter routing technology and major new transmission infrastructure to deliver renewable energy from a point of production
to where it’s needed: for example, solar power from the southwest to larger urban centres
further north, or wind power from the Maritimes flowing down to U.S. customers.
By some accounts, the energy grid that criss-crosses North America is the world’s
single largest machine. Over the next few years, we’re going to see what happens when
portions of that machine take a big step into the future.

Comments

1 Response to "Get Smart: Reprogramming North America's Largest Machine"

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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

Info on my consulting work, c.v. and current research focus is all here.