Monday, July 5, 2010

Smart Grids

On my recent road trip from Michigan to Colorado I occupied myself with a collection of current and older National Geographic magazines and fed myself on tantalizing advancements in the developing renewable energy grid systems in the US and Europe and ever-growing solar energy developments in the US. This information is specifically exciting to me because I just completed my MSc thesis on Sustainable Community Renewable Energy; a Strategic Approach for Communities and along with two colleagues, designed the Sustaianble Renewable Energy Tool (SCRE Tool) to help support communities and organizations wanting to initiate renewable energy projects or assess current ones in working towards more sustainable energy development strategically.

So what is a Smart Grid?

In National Geographic July 2010, Joel Achenbach's article The 21st Grid walks us through what exactly the US electricity grid looks like... a crazy unplanned complex and inefficient system getting more and more complex and unstable. Here he also introduces a solution to this mess we unconsciously depend on and support daily with the developing technology of the Smart Grid. And having just lived in Sweden and visited Denmark and Germany, I know first-hand what these 'Smarter' grid systems look like and what type of benefits they create for consumers and the nations employing them.

A Smart Grid, basically means that it is a 'smarter' electricity grid system, in that it is able to 'sense' and 'self-heal' itself with peaks, lows and the changing demand of electricity in the grid. As Achenbach puts it:
The precise definition of "smart" varies from one engineer to the next. The gist is that a smart grid would be more automated and more "self-healing," and so less prone to failure. It would be more tolerant of small-scale, variable power sources such as solar panels and wind turbines, in part because it would even out fluctuations by storing energy—in the batteries of electric cars, according to one speculative vision of the future, or perhaps in giant caverns filled with compressed air.
A Smart Grid offers more than more efficient, stable and safer electricity supply, it would also help us all to become more conscious of our electricity use and advocate for consumers to be more involved in the process of consuming and depending on necessary electricity. Once again I'd like to quote Achenbach, especially because it echoes what I have been researching and designing in my thesis work:
But the first thing a smart grid will do, if we let it, is turn us into savvier consumers of electricity. We'll become aware of how much we're consuming and cut back, especially at moments of peak demand, when electricity costs most to produce. That will save us and the utilities money—and incidentally reduce pollution. In a way, we'll stop being mere passive consumers of electrons. In the 21st century we'll become active participants in the management of this vast and seemingly unknowable network that makes our civilization possible.
Attention. You may be part of something great that happens to the US...
According to government sources, the United States plans to announce the formation of the International Smart Grid Action Network, or ISGAN, to expand the U.S. energy market through smart grid standardization and take the lead in the new energy business. The Obama administration is expected to make the announcement at the first ministerial meeting on clean energy to take place in Washington, D.C. on July 19-20. For complete article, visit the new article at Smart Meters website.
Smart Meters, Leverage Points for more sustainable energy consumption...
Along with the Smart Grid, the Smart Meter which helps consumers better understand their electricity needs and their consumption of electricity is a growing solution for smart consumers. Smart meters are very popular in renewable energy progressive countries like Denmark, Germany and Sweden.
For more info on Smart Meters see this great introductory pdf

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