How Do Smart Grids Help the Environment?

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Smart grid technologies are viewed by many as the way forward for green energy, but what exactly are smart grid technologies and what do they have to do with solving the environmental problems we face? It turns out smart grid is a term that covers a wide range of concepts and technologies that all combine to help modernize our power system. The main focus of smart grids is to increase the level of information and interaction between different sections of the power grid. This communication allows for a more efficient running of our power system and can lead to big changes in the future.

By increasing the level of information available to the people managing the power grid we can more efficiently adjust to meet peak demand. This is the first major environmental improvement that we could see from smart grids. Currently peak demand is met by running what are known as “peaker” plants. These are typically older coal fired power plants that only run to help meet peak demand. By more efficiently controlling our power grid through better monitoring we could decrease and possibly get rid of the need for these dirty power plants. However, new technologies must be implemented to allow for the monitoring and control of power to manage this peak demand. In addition to helping cut down on our environmental impact, decreasing the need for “peaker” plants will help decrease the cost of energy because we will no longer be paying to maintain power plants we only use occasionally. These same smart grid monitoring technologies will also allow grid managers to better respond to system overloads and route excess power to prevent outages thereby minimizing economic loss due to power outage.

Another goal of smart grid technologies is to increase the efficiency of cross continental power transfers through the grid. This will be a major step forward for renewable power sources, helping to alleviate some of the downside of intermittent production. Being able to effectively move power generated anywhere around the country we can have wide spread production of renewable energy insuring that some portion of it is always online. As it currently stands wind generation needs to be backed up by more traditional forms of generation incase the wind stops, however by dispersing our wind generation across the continent we decrease the risk that we will completely lose production. Along with this comes a greater possibility for a decentralization of power production, allowing for smaller wind turbines and solar arrays to plug into the grid and share the power they create.

There are also more consumer oriented ideas under the canopy of smart grid technologies. One which is already being implemented is the use of smart meters. Smart meters allow of dynamic pricing of energy based on current levels of demand. By increase the price in real time as demand increases we can help smooth out our power demand curve, which will help further alleviate the strain put on the grid during peak demand periods. Along with smart meters people are also developing smart appliances that monitor the demand on the grid and run when there is the most power available. This would include things like dishwashers and clothes driers that you could set to run overnight, but instead of setting an exact time, you would just tell them to run when the price of energy drops below a certain threshold. These consumer smart grid technologies will help consumers play an active role in power grid management instead of the current passive role they play now. Higher involvement with the community allows everyone to pitch in and do their part to help solve the current environmental problems, but it can’t happen without smart gird technologies.

The final aspect that smart grid proponents talk about is something that is already widely available to consumers but not taken advantage. I am referring to energy efficiency improvements. If everyone in the country did the most to make their homes as energy efficient as possible we could dramatically decrease the strain we put on the grid. By reducing our demand for power from the grid we would make it easier to transfer to renewable energy sources and manage our peak demand. While there are already many options available for improving home energy efficiency the goal of smart grid technologies is to increase awareness of these options and give people a reason to seek out problems and make improvements in their home energy efficiency.

This only covers the very basics of smart grid technologies as they apply to a wide range of topics. The overall idea of smart grid technologies though is clear; to increase efficiency and intelligence in the power system as a whole. Achieving these goals will make it easier to integrate renewable energy sources into our power system, deal with peak demand, prevent outages and build a more resilient power grid. So while smart grid technologies in and of themselves may not be considered green technology they will aid in allowing a speedy adoption of green production and thereby help reduce the production of Co2 and other pollutants.

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