"Smart Grids" Need Smart Planners

Billions of dollars will be invested in upgrading America’s electrical grid in the coming years but making it smarter in California and elsewhere won’t lead to lower bills, healthier air or fewer greenhouse gas emissions without well-designed utility programs.

In other words, there are major potential environmental and economic benefits associated with upgrading our electricity production and distribution systems, but much depends on how it’s done; “smart grids” need smart planners.

In a “smart grid,” technology is used to gather information at every level of the power system -- from power plants to transmission lines to office buildings and homes – and can be utilized automatically by a utility system to reduce waste and improve the system’s resilience and reliability. In addition, the data can be used by grid operators and consumers to help save resources and keep things running smoothly, especially in the event of major power interruptions.

Smart grid technology also has significant potential energy and conservation benefits but achieving them requires developing programs with those goals in mind, according to NRDC’s new issue paper “The Promise of the Smart Grid: Goals, Policies, and Measurement Must Support Sustainability Benefits.” As author Samir Succar recently noted, well-designed programs and careful implementation are necessary. Smart grid programs need to consider sustainability and reduced carbon emissions as important factors in measuring success.

The good news is that all of California’s major utilities are investing heavily in smarter grids, beginning with installing new meters that look pretty much the same as before but don’t require regular (and sometimes perilous) trips to every backyard to take monthly readings.

The new meters report electricity use directly to the utility’s headquarters on a continuous basis and allow customers to see exactly how and when they are consuming electricity – and ways to reduce it -- by signing into their password-protected account online. They also can now use the information to compare, share and compete with others to cut energy use via a new social media collaboration launched by NRDC in partnership with Facebook and Opower.

The smart grid makes us healthier, smarter, richer and safer 

Healthier: When the smart grid’s information helps consumers use less electricity and shift demand away from peak periods, it can reduce the need for utilities to bring extra power plants online that emit carbon dioxide and other pollutants. Smart grid flexibility also allows for the integration of more energy from renewable resources, like solar and wind power, which will significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As these systems make it easier and cheaper to communicate with energy-consuming devices, they should reduce the cost of using renewable  energy production that shifts with sun and wind.

Smarter and Richer: There are a variety of ways a smart grid can promote energy efficiency. For example, it can help larger buildings use power where it’s most needed and cut costly waste by turning off lights and other equipment on nights and weekends when the buildings are closed, or by adjusting fans to cool only areas sensors report as occupied. 

Information provided by grid meters and sensors also can be used to design programs that encourage consumers to use energy during off-peak hours and avoid power spikes on the hottest days, for example. This reduces the need to run the system’s least efficient (and most expensive) generators or purchase costly power elsewhere, benefitting utilities and their customers.

In addition, utilities can reduce distribution energy loss through real-time feedback from sensors throughout the system. Information gathered through smart grid technology also can be used to evaluate utilities’ wide-ranging energy efficiency programs more precisely and cheaply.

Safer and More Reliable: Smart grid technologies speed up the diagnosis and repair of power outages that not only are inconvenient and costly, they can be life-threatening. Service is greatly improved, as these examples from Vermont and Texas illustrate:

  • One-third of Vermont Electric Cooperative customers were without power after Hurricane Irene hit in August 2011, but smart grid sensors and meters helped the Cooperative pinpoint outages and send repair crews straight to problem areas, rather than wait to learn about them from customers. All power was restored within two days.
  • The Dallas-based utility Oncor reports “20 percent of the time we respond to customer outages before or without ever receiving a customer call” on non-storm days, meaning the problem is fixed before customers return home from work. The new technology also helped the utility solve 19 percent of outage calls remotely by identifying problems like tripped breakers on the customer’s end, saving millions of miles of unnecessary service trips.

Without question, smart grids offer real benefits to customers and utilities. Ensuring that those benefits include increased sustainability and reduced pollution will require smart planning, as well as more consumer education to motivate higher levels of energy efficiency and overcome any privacy concerns related to smart meters. Making us all healthier and more secure while avoiding high-cost power purchases is well worth it. 

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