Five Reasons Planet Earth Likes the Smart Grid

The Union of Concerned Scientists released a new guide titled “Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living” that offers practical steps Americans can adopt to reduce carbon emissions.  The largest contributor of carbon emissions is the internal combustion engine in a car.   The UCS’s top recommendation is that Americans switch to cars with better fuel economy, keep cars in tune to maintain the most energy-efficient operations, and rethink our use of cars.  The second largest American source of carbon emissions is the home.  According to the report, our homes leak like a sieve, or at least like we leave one window open in our homes year round, heating or cooling the outside environment according to the season.  A good energy audit can help identify those leaks and the best actions to take.  A very related suggestion is to get and use a programmable thermostat.  The emphasis is on the verb “use”, as there is evidence that many of these thermostats never get programmed to manage home temperatures.  There are also sensible suggestions about adding more LEDs or compact fluorescent light bulbs and replacing aging appliances with energy-efficient ones. 

These suggestions rely on voluntary individual actions to be effective.  We also need wholesale changes to our infrastructure to make significant reductions in the greenhouse gases that are warming our planet.  The electric grid is an important part of that infrastructure.  Grid modernization projects are leading the evolution to a Smart Grid, and these projects all help to directly or indirectly reduce CO2 emissions.  Earth Day is a good moment to review some of ways that the Smart Grid improves our local and global environments along with improving our domestic energy security:

1.  The Smart Grid integrates clean, domestic renewables like wind and solar into the grid to deliver electricity reliably and safely.  That reduces the need for electricity from coal-fired power plants, a major source of CO2 emissions.  And natural gas, while cleaner than coal or oil, still produces CO2 emissions in extraction and consumption.

2.  The Smart Grid can integrate distributed energy resources such as rooftop solar panels, EVs, and stationary energy storage into the distribution grid.  This reduces the need for remote generation and transmission facilities, which lose between 8% – 15% of their produced electricity in long distance transport.

3.   The Smart Grid can handle a vastly electrified transportation system and widespread use of electric vehicles (EVs), eliminating oil as the primary transport fuel and thus its considerable CO2 contributions and other pollutants to our atmosphere.

4.  Smart meters eliminate the need for utilities to drive around collecting meter data for billing purposes.  According to one estimate from General Electric,  one million smart meters reduces annual fuel consumption by 7000 gallons and 45 metric tons of CO2 gases. 

5.  Smart meters and other intelligent (ie capable of remote monitoring and/or control) devices in electric distribution grids can calibrate the demand and supply of electricity with much greater granularity than current practices.  Utilities routinely “oversupply” electricity to end users to ensure that everyone has all the energy they need at any point in time, but a Smart Grid can modulate that flow of energy to avoid oversupplies and thus reduce the amounts of electricity generated.  And when fossil fuels are the generation fuel, these calibrated reductions in supply also reduce CO2 emissions.

The Smart Grid has many benefits, and let’s remember as we celebrate Earth Day that it has significant positive impacts to make our world a more comfortable and sustainable place.