Many years ago, I used to work for one of the largest Investor Owned Utilities (IOUs) in the country. The employees understood that our main job was to keep the lights on, safely and affordably. There was also an understanding that most end-consumers don’t think about their electrical infrastructures until the lights are out.
This could not have been more apparent this past Sunday when the lights went out during the Super Bowl, leaving more than 75,000 fans in the dark at the Superdome in New Orleans. Not to mention the more than 100 million fans watching on TV from their homes and other venues. The 34-minute outage caught the attention of many in the nation.
The next day I saw quite a few articles written about how a smart grid could have prevented the outage. Aside from whether or not a smart grid could have prevented this particular outage at the Super Bowl, this occurrence reminded us of the importance of our energy grid reliability. Most people do not realize how much reliance we put on our energy infrastructure to keep our lives and the economy going. Thus, occurrences such as this provided the energy industry an opportunity to make energy infrastructure conversations relevant to people’s everyday lives. The smart grid industry, especially those focusing on the grid reliability side, has seldom engaged end-consumers on conversations about grid reliability. Sure, grid reliability may not be an exciting topic for some, but it definitely is important. Some studies estimate that power outages cost the U.S. economy between $100 billion – $200 billion per year. Modernizing our electric grid infrastructure will help improve grid reliability and reduce both the number and duration of outages.
According to a 2011 Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) study, deployment of smart grid technology will deliver $1.3 trillion to $2 trillion in benefits. The benefits will include greater grid reliability, integration of solar rooftop generation and plug-in vehicles, reductions in electricity demand, and stronger cybersecurity. Another study from McKinsey estimated that the smart grid has the potential of delivering approximately $190 billion in annual benefits by 2019. The majority of benefits come from grid applications that improve reliability and from smart consumer applications that enable enhanced energy efficiency, demand response, and the integration of distributed energy resources such as solar rooftops and electric vehicles. Another EPRI study also predicted the ability of smart grid technologies to help lower power consumption, which in turn, lower greenhouse gas emissions. The study concluded that smart grid technologies would enable a transition to cleaner generation and reduced consumption that could reduce overall carbon emissions in 2030 by 58 percent compared to 2005 levels.
In general, the smart grid is still a foreign concept for most consumers. Many may even equate the smart grid with smart meters, because that is the only smart grid application they may have heard of. First of all, smart grid does not equal smart meters. Smart meters are just one application of the whole end-to-end Smart Grid. In contrast to merely smart meters, the Smart Grid connects the whole energy grid, from generation, to transmission, to distribution, to the meters, to beyond the meters — inside our homes and buildings — and extending all the way to distributed energy resources such as solar panels, energy storage, and electric vehicles.The Smart Grid will give our energy providers visibility into the way electricity is flowing, letting them fix problems fast. It will empower us with information on how we use energy, so we can choose to use it more wisely. It is our power, our choice.
When implemented correctly, with the crucial consumer engagement and education, smart meters and the Smart Grid are here to help us. Smart meters are good, but they’re only the tip of the iceberg. The next step is to extend that intelligence further into the grid, and into the home. We’re going to see a series of game-changing applications. Picture, for example, a charger for electric cars that automatically turns on when rates are at their lowest for the day. Imagine having solar panels on our rooftop that not only power our house but also feed any excess electricity that’s produced back into the grid — energy we get paid for.
It’s essential to articulate the value propositions of the smart grid. When consumers realize the benefits of the smart grid — not only for themselves, but also for their next generation — they won’t just want a modern grid, they will demand it. Understanding the power of the smart grid is the first step in unleashing it.
(Photo courtesy of the NY Daily News)