The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change begins its latest meeting today in Durban, South Africa.  Only the sunniest of optimists expect real progress in forging a global agreement as developing and developed nations argue about voluntary versus legally binding emissions reductions and funding measures.    

There’s no single answer to the climate change mess we’re in, but Smart Grid advances will be primary contributors to the most effective reductions in CO2 emissions.  Here are two incremental efforts that can reduce our use of fossil fuels and improve the odds of avoiding the severest impacts of climate change.

Energy efficiency.  Residential and commercial buildings account for 40% of energy consumed in the USA, according to the Department of Energy.  Fossil fuels account for 77% of that energy expended to heat, cool, illuminate and operate those buildings.  Innovative retrofit solutions for building envelopes (windows, walls, and ceilings) can reduce energy consumption, emissions, and energy bills.   But energy efficiency innovations also extend into product designs and operations.  For instance, the USA wisely instituted energy efficiency standards for refrigerators back in 1978, and since then, even as these appliances have increased in size and features, their electricity consumption has decreased by more than two thirds.  The most recent round of refrigerator standards instituted in August of this year will trim another 25% of energy use by 2014.  Similar expectations should be applied to every appliance and electronics component that reside in our homes and office buildings.

Electric vehicles (EVs).   This is truly disruptive in terms of technology, policies, services and even business models, and it couldn’t happen at a more opportune time.  Electrification of personal transportation delivers beneficial impacts that range from environmental to economic to national security.  There’s a good report from the Electrification Coalition that details the numerous benefits that we can enjoy through transitioning to EVs.   This report recommends replacing traditional vehicle fleets to EVs as the first incremental step in that transition.  EVs reduce petroleum products consumption, which accounts for 94% of our transportation needs today.   A transition to EVs would eliminate a $1 billion per day transfer of wealth from the USA to countries that don’t like us.   

While these disruptions are most welcome to securing our energy security and refocusing investment within our borders, the Smart Grid offers strategic new uses of EVs beyond mere transportation.  The most disruptive impact of all is that the energy stored in EVs can potentially be harnessed to modify electricity consumption patterns.  EVs that are plugged into the grid during times of peak electricity use could be tapped to intelligently discharge just enough energy for utilities to ride-out those timeframes without building additional generation facilities or purchasing power at its most expensive price.   Transitioning to EV-based transport will require upgrades to our electric infrastructure, which are needed anyway to support integration of renewables and distributed small to large scale generation.  It will also require new software applications to manage EVs as mobile, temporary, and distributed energy sources.    There are enormous opportunities for entrepreneurs to create innovations in technologies and services to manage what is commonly known as the V2G (vehicle to grid) connection.  Even utilities and their regulatory agencies, typically cautious adopters of innovation, may develop EV business models that continue the focus on delivery of safe, reliable, and cost-effective electricity.  

The UN conference in Durban may not produce the game-changing agreements that we’d like to see, but in the USA we can challenge ourselves to be the leaders in the most dramatic reductions in carbon emissions through innovations in Smart Grid technologies, policies, and services.