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Delivering electricity using a smart grid could save energy and the Earth

For life in the 21st century, it is impossible to put a dollar value on the necessity of reliable electrical power. Electricity underlies every aspect of our modern lives, and yet the grid used to deliver this crucial commodity has not substantially changed since the 1890s, after its invention by Nikola “Electric Jesus” Tesla.

The current electricity delivery model is a source-sink one, meaning that a few giant power plants passively monitor the demand for electricity caused by net usage, and turn generators on or off accordingly. From a consumer perspective, your personal “sink” is monitored with a metre that is checked a couple of times a month and you are charged accordingly with a flat rate.

But the real cost of producing electricity is far from a flat rate. Over the day, as people go about their business, the net amount of electricity used rises relative to times when everybody is asleep, resulting in “peak power” consumption, such as when consumers begin making dinner as they collectively return home from work. This peak power is particularly noticeable during hot summers, when millions of people turn on their energy-intensive air conditioners.

Base load power plants (like coal and nuclear) can economically only run 24/7, so additional demand is met using peaker plants, gas-fired variants that are only run for a few hours a year. With peaker plants, the actual cost of electricity will fluctuate throughout the day, but the source-sink paradigm does not shift these additional costs or savings onto consumers.

The vulnerability of the system was perhaps most apparent during the Northeast blackout of 2003. Hot August days were causing millions of people to ramp up the air conditioning, bringing more peaker plants online. As more power flowed through the already taxed transmission lines, lines in Ohio sagged low enough to be shorted out by tree branches. To pick up the slack, electricity was rerouted through other lines, shorting them out and causing a cascading failure that ultimately plunged 55 million people across the northeatern U.S. and Ontario into darkness, and cost the affected region an estimated $6 billion in losses.

Enter the smart grid: an emerging set of technologies that can make electricity consumption more efficient and economically viable. The smart grid would overturn the source-sink model by making every electricity user into a potential producer through the use of a two-way metering system. Monitors deployed through the grid would allow supply and demand of electricity to be measured in real time, resulting in a market-driven pricing of electricity.

As a result of this real-time pricing, consumers would be financially rewarded for using electricity in off-peak hours, resulting in lower electrical bills. A smart grid would also be able to re-route power intelligently in the case of emergencies like ice storms, falling trees, or even terrorist attacks, greatly decreasing the likelihood of a failure like the 2003 blackout.

The smart grid would also be a boon for electrical cars. Real-time pricing would allow car owners to recharge their batteries during off-peak hours at low cost. During high demand, car owners could sell excess battery power back to the grid at a profit, simultaneously reducing the need for the peaker plants – and consumption in general – through a distributed supply. The batteries in just one million electric cars have a potential electrical capacity of about a gigawatt hour, which amounts to approximately 15 per cent of the average daily energy use by Canadians. Potentially enough to take the “peak” off of peak power.

Small-scale energy, such as that made from personal solar panels, wind turbines, or the not yet commercialized micronukes, would also fare well under a smart grid system. If combined with sufficient battery capacity, these small producers would be able to sell their electricity at market pricing for profit at any scale, lowering investment barriers for individuals and small businesses alike. Greater small-scale power distribution would minimize the need to transmit power over the vast distances it currently travels today, such as the 11,000 kilometers of lines that provide power to Quebec alone. Losses because of line heating and physical distance in these transmission lines amount to about 6 per cent of all electricity produced. The physical length of transmission wires are particularly vulnerable to space weather phenomenon, like the Quebec blackout of 1989, which was caused by a huge solar flare.

A smart grid would cheaper, more robust, more reliable, and greener than the one we have today. The smart grid Telegestore project in Italy, which consists of 27 million connected metres, provides annual net savings of 500 million euros (around $680 million) every year. Based on an estimate published by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the present value of a smart grid can been conservatively estimated to be $7.5 billion to Canadians – not including the cultural, environmental or societal benefits included with radically rethinking how we consume power. Electrical demand will only increase in a growing, developing and heating world, and the very least we can do is provide it in a way that isn’t prone to catastrophic failure. It’s what Electric Jesus would have wanted.