Can the Electrical Grid Be as Smart as Your Cell Phone?

Yes, and make it quick!

If the designers of our telegraph and telephone system traveled more than hundred years into our time, they could not begin to imagine how our “smart phones” put the world into our hands.  But our electrical grid has pretty much remained the same since its inception in the late 1800s.  And it’s time to make a change.

Bob Catell, a speaker at yesterday’s forum “Smart Grid for Smart Cities” at NYU’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, used that jarring comparison to bring home a point that everyone in the energy industry understands.  With electricity costs and demand growing out of control, the urgent need to reduce our emissions in a carbon-constrained world, and a growing mandate to use more renewable resources, our electrical grid needs a revolution like the one that has transformed the way we communicate.  With a Smart Grid, we can meet our energy efficiency goals, stem the tide of global warming, and make energy affordable.

The Smart Grid Controls Costs

New York City residents pay more than almost anyone else in the country for electricity.  With demand projected to rise a couple of percentage points a year in the foreseeable future, New York City energy planners say costs could go up 20% over the next 5 years. The Smart Grid brings detailed information about how much energy we’re using and how much it’s costing us right into our kitchens and living rooms, and runs on “auto-pilot” to limit our consumption they way we tell it to. Controlling our consumption is the key to keeping costs down in the future.

In the Smart Grid, functions are automated system-wide also, to level out the hills and valleys of our city’s daily and seasonal demand.  That’s good news, because right now the system has to have enough capacity to meet our electrical needs at times of peak demand–afternoons in the middle of summer when everyone is cranking the AC, or winter evenings when we get home from work and turn on the lights.  The rest of the time we have excess capacity that doesn’t get used.  The Smart Grid promises to optimize what we have so we don’t have to keep building more power plants just to meet our growing peak demand.

Making Renewables a Reality

Finally, we won’t be able to realize the full potential of renewable energy without the Smart Grid.  While the current system can handle some integration of small solar and wind installations, electricity is really meant to travel from large power plants in one direction to electrical consumers.  In the 21st century, we need “distributed generation,” for electricity to travel in all directions from large and small generators to wherever it’s needed.  And for that we need the automated system controls of the Smart Grid.

While there are a number of pilot projects right now, we won’t see full implementation of the Smart Grid for about twenty years.  Getting us there is the job of New York State’s Smart Grid Consortium of utilities, corporations, governments, academic instutions and non-profits.  It’s an expensive proposition, and we’ll all have to share the cost burden in the short-term.

But as the head of the Smart Grid Consortium Bob Catell said at yesterday’s forum, “The question isn’t, how much is this going to cost if we do it, but how much will it cost if we don’t?”

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