Thursday, July 08, 2010

We are creatures of the grid

“We are creatures of the grid,” is the opening line to this month’s National Geographic article by Joel Achenbach.

And we are. From the heating and cooling systems that control our indoor environments, to the power for our cell phones and computers–we have grown so accustomed to reliable and affordable electricity that we take it for granted as much as the air we breathe.

But our grid was built for the 20th century. What we have works, most of the time. It’s not, however, equipped for the growing demand of our ever increasing population. It is also unequipped to handle the new, greener sources of electricity that we hope will be powering our lives in the years ahead.

One of the first steps in developing a smarter grid for this century can be found in San Diego through SDG&E’s implementation of smart meters. This is a logical step since the technology is readily available to provide both consumers and producers of electricity with vital real-time, two-way communications regarding energy usage. SDG&E is a national leader in this upgrade.

Smart meter technology will allow homeowners and businesses to see how they are consuming electricity, and adjust their energy use accordingly. Utilities will have real time information to prevent or deal with brownouts or localized outages. Today most power companies don’t know that the power is out until somebody calls in a report. By implementing this relatively simple technology, we are taking an important step forward toward a smarter grid for this century.

Green energy and the grid

Forty percent of all energy used in the U.S. goes into making electricity–and today only 3% of that energy comes from renewable sources. The vast majority of our energy for electricity comes from coal and natural gas-powered plants (almost 50% is from coal-powered generators). If we are going to deal with climate change, we need to move away from these carbon-dioxide belching energy sources.

Developing a smarter grid is especially important as Americans shift toward greener sources of energy, including wind and solar.

Today, Texas is capable of producing far more wind energy than the existing grid can handle. Because of this, as well as the collapse in the price of natural gas over the past two years, an ambitious project to build a giant wind farm in west Texas was abandoned.

Arizona is capable of producing enough solar power for the entire nation. There too, the grid is not capable of distributing what Arizona could produce.

There are a few grid-related issues limiting the sun and the wind as energy sources including: distribution capacity, storage capabilities and grid intelligence. Wind and solar depend on the wind blowing, and the sun shining. Mechanisms need to be developed and deployed to store power for night time and calm days.

Moving to different sources of energy and upgrading our grid are important steps toward standing for less oil, gas and coal being used. These are also vital steps for national security. Oil is not a significant source of electricity in the U.S., but by generating clean energy and moving toward electric vehicles, we can decrease our need for foreign oil–which literally fuels our economy today–and keeps us hostage to the whims of the market and to foreign nations that are at times less than friendly.

As creatures of the grid, these are issues that affect all of us.

Read “The 21st Century Grid,” by Joel Achenbach.

This post originally appeared at STAND FOR LESS.

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