By Katie M. Scholz | 14 January 2013
With Obama’s re-election, increasing innovations in wind and solar power generation and continued governmental support for renewable energy, 2013 looks to be the year America’s energy mix shifts away from fossil fuels for good. There is plenty of renewable energy to go around – only 0.22% of the earth’s surface covered in solar panels with an 8% efficiency rate would meet current global power needs. However, the path from generation to distribution is a challenge for renewable energy, requiring updates to the current energy grid that compensate for inconsistent power generation rates from wind and solar sources.
A network of transmission lines, transformers and substations make up the grid which delivers electricity to consumers from their utility provider’s local power plant. The current power grid was built in the 1890s and expanded piecemeal as U.S. energy needs grew and shifted. While the grid still functions, serious updates are needed for the new energy sources of the 21st century.
A smart grid employs digital equipment to create two-way communication between consumers and their utility provider. Smart grids provide more efficient transmission of energy and integrate consumer-operated power sources. Smart grids also provide faster relief from power outages. [http://newsroom.cisco.com/dlls/2009/prod_051809.html] But the biggest advantage of smart grids is the ability to integrate alternative energy sources like wind and solar. [http://ieeecss.org/sites/ieeecss.org/files/documents/IoCT-Part1-06RESG.pdf] The crucial solution that smart grids provide is the means to control the fluctuating voltage supplied due to daily and seasonal weather variability. [http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1124081/smart-grid-unlocks-renewable-power] Smart grids also solve the location problem with better infrastructure better designed to transport energy from the sparsely populated ideal locations for alternative energy production like deserts and windy plains. [http://pesd.stanford.edu/research/low_carbon_electricity] Smart grids also curb carbon emissions through improved metering and conservation efforts. [http://www.sanders.senate.gov/newsroom/news/?id=1569ed9e-6f44-4ad5-8fff-8901487c7c63]
Two important technological advances behind smart grids are digital metering systems and microgrid management. The controlled distribution of energy is accomplished through new digital meters that measure real-time usage and consumer demand, resulting in more efficient distribution of energy. [http://www.sanders.senate.gov/newsroom/news/?id=1569ed9e-6f44-4ad5-8fff-8901487c7c63] Smart grids also happen to be composed of many ‘microgrids’ – small, distributed generation facilities that, working in concert, aid in efficient distribution while integrating battery storage and electric vehicles.
2013 does present a great opportunity to further integrate renewable sources into the American energy diet, partly due to the disastrous Hurricane Sandy. Many states, notably New York, have decided that this is the perfect opportunity to replace their outdated systems with a smart grid. [http://www.elp.com/news/2013/01/10/new-york-state-smart-grid-consortium-commends-gov-cuomo-s-leadership-on-energy-issues-in-a-post-sand.html] While a smart grid will obviously not prevent weather-related devastation in the future, it will result in faster response times after storms. [http://www.sanders.senate.gov/newsroom/news/?id=1569ed9e-6f44-4ad5-8fff-8901487c7c63] The market for smart-grids and renewable energy integration is expected to grow from $3.8 billion last year to $13 billion by 2018. [http://www.dailyfinance.com/2012/10/30/market-for-smart-grid-renewable-energy-integration/]
The future of alternative energy in the United States is tied to the installation of smart grids uniquely capable of controlling variable energy supply and meeting consumer demand. In addition, smart grids promise to curb emissions each year through better monitors and mechanisms allowing the integration of consumer-generated power sources as well as electric cars.