Is the smart grid nearly as smart as the hype around it says? It depends on whether you expect the technology to ax energy consumption and carbon emissions … or whether you think it’ll act more like a scalpel.
The scalpel expectation appears to be more realistic, according to a new report prepared for the US Department of Energy. “The Smart Grid: An Estimation of the Energy and CO2 Benefits” (PDF), written by researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, finds that a 100-per cent build-out of smart-grid technologies would lead to a direct electricity and carbon reduction of 12 per cent, with an additional indirect savings of 6 per cent.
The researchers who wrote the study focused only on the energy and carbon benefits of the smart grid, rather than on the technology’s cost-effectiveness. They also noted that their individual energy and carbon calculations come with “relatively high” uncertainties.
Still, they added, the overall benefit from smart-grid technologies could be significant in terms of electricity consumption.
“The magnitude of these reductions suggests that, while a smart grid is not the primary mechanism for achieving aggressive national goals for energy and carbon savings, it is capable of providing a very substantial contribution to the goals for the electricity sector,” they write in the report. “Further, a smart grid may help overcome barriers to deployment of distributed solar renewables at penetrations higher than 20 per cent.”
The researchers identified nine ways in which the smart grid could help lower electricity use and carbon emissions:
- Providing consumers with information that helps them conserve more energy;
- Creating a “one-stop shop” for energy use that reduces utilities’ costs for advertising, education, recruiting, measurement and evaluation;
- Enabling diagnostic tools to optimise energy use and reduce operating costs for energy and maintenance;
- Making it easier to measure and verify energy-efficiency programmes;
- Making it easier to shift electricity loads from peak to off-peak hours;
- Providing support for greater use of electric cars and plug-in hybrids;
- Reducing distribution system losses and electricity consumption by better managing voltage for energy conservation;
- Making it easier to take advantage of wind energy; and
- Making it easier to take advantage of solar energy.
The study’s authors said further study and more feedback from energy consumers is needed to reduce uncertainties and better understand the smart grid’s potential. A better understanding of its true costs and cost benefits is also important, they added.
“A key issue that will impact the penetration of the smart grid technology … is the acceptance by federal and state regulatory bodies,” they wrote. “A major driver for this acceptance is the extent to which the smart grid technology proves to be a cost-effective replacement for traditional grid infrastructure while providing equal or improved levels of power quality and reliability. This highlights the need for a quantitative method to define and monetise improvements in power reliability and quality that would be enabled by smart grid technologies.”