Cleaner, Safer, Smarter, Cheaper. The Smart Grid Has It All.

May 26, 2011 | 23:17
Cleaner, Safer, Smarter, Cheaper. The Smart Grid Has It All.
Cleaner, Safer, Smarter, Cheaper. The Smart Grid Has It All.
Today is the last day of ConnectivityWeek, the four day conference on the Smart Grid. Attending as a panel member is Kurt Yeager, Executive Director of the Galvin Electricity Initiative (GEI).  GEI leads a campaign to change the United States’ power system from a regulated monopoly business model to a distributed electricity network. As Yeager puts it: “to transform the 19th century power system into one that is fit for the 21st century”.

Today electricity distribution is organized in a regulated monopoly business model. A few large companies own gigantic centralized power plants which fire electrons through miles and miles of cable to deliver to homes and businesses. Yeager proposes to reform the centralized network into a distributed one. In which everybody who is connected to the network has not only the right to buy the juice but also to sell it.

A distributed system would be cleaner, more reliable, smarter and cheaper. This newly conceived electricity grid would consist of thousands and thousands of microgrids. These can be buildings, universities, parks or entire communities. Each generates its own clean energy with solar panels and wind turbines. When these microgrids produce excess power it goes into the network to be routed to hubs suffering a shortage.

Contributing to the network will of course lower the electricity bill or even flip beyond the zero point and start to pay off. With electricity prices rising this will be a huge incentive for innovation and creativity which can be picked up by small communities. Innovation is no longer dependent on the goodwill of politicians and captains of industry. As with the internet, we will see sixteen-year-olds changing the world as we know it before we can even blink.

Another resemblance to the internet is the fact that the grid no longer has a central point of distribution. Instead there will be thousands of hubs. Making the grid more resilient to natural catastrophes and human attacks.

Transforming the grid also involves making it smarter. In order for the distributed network to function properly there has to be constant communication between microgrids and electronic devices. Locating hubs which are overproducing and routing their surplus to hubs with a shortage. End-users who are not supplying to the network can still actively participate. In the current system suppliers deliver at fixed prices. Tariffs can vary depending on the time of day but information about it is too opaque to act upon it. In a smart grid with multiple suppliers, prices can fluctuate minute by minute. When demand is high rates go up. You can instruct your devices to shut themselves off at a certain rate and safe yourself some money whilst alleviating the network  when demand peaks.

According to Yeager the weak link in the implementation of a distributed electricity system isn’t technology. A lot of the technology needed is already out there. Now it is primarily a matter of policy change. Politicians need to get behind the alternatives and let go of the idea that a regulated monopoly business model serves citizens best. He calls the electricity industry the last tyranny of the United States because people do not have choices. They can’t shop for prices, hardly have the means to make informed decisions about their energy consumption and certainly aren’t enticed to become producers. In short, people have no means to participate in the electricity industry. An industry that is vital to our way of life and faces serious challenges as fossil fuels run out and climate change sets in.

Read more about the Galvin Electricity Initiative on their website: http://www.galvinpower.org/

Photo: flowtrack wind turbines
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