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Making the Switch: Smart Technology and Grid Reform for the 21st Century

Words by 3p Contributor
Energy & Environment
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By Lynn Scarlett

It’s that time of the year again.

We’ve been having those tricky weeks here in the Southeast, where one day it’s mild enough for a fleece jacket and the next you have to put on a parka and tall boots. The house is too cold, so you adjust the thermostat; then it’s too hot.

Technology is reimagining all that, changing how we manage our daily routines. We have 'smart' thermostats that learn how we use heating and cooling and adjust to our preferences. We have refrigerators that will tell us if we are out of milk. And soon, we’ll have more cars on the roads that drive themselves (well, maybe).

As consumers, we are growing to expect that the technology we use will adapt in real time to how we live our lives. And technology companies are meeting the challenge.

So it’s surprising that the tech sector hasn’t applied these same expectations, with the same spirit of innovation, to how we generate, transport and use electric power. We are only just starting to see the types of storage technologies that enable and adapt to renewable sources like solar and wind, allowing these sources to truly replace traditional generation. Energy-efficiency technologies offer consumers, businesses, and governments the opportunity to save energy, emissions and money all at the same time. But despite their popularity, uptake and innovation are still slow.

Technologies are available that can monitor and optimize our electric grid’s ability to deliver power where and when it’s most needed — and save consumers money.

Investments from the U.S. Department of Energy have led to the deployment of state-of-the-art grid technology, including 15 million smart meters, 8,500 automated feeder switches and over 1,000 phasor measurement units. But even with these initial modest successes, full integration of these technologies into our massive grid remains mostly an idea.

The Energy Department estimates that with an additional $100 billion investment by the industry as a whole — building off of the $10 billion DOE has already invested — we could fully modernize the grid, saving consumers $2 trillion over the next 20 years.

The electric power industry is as interested in grid reform as anyone. Industry leaders recognize we’re moving toward a world with more electricity generation sources — especially renewable sources — distributed more widely across the grid. Adapting to the new reality will require new technologies and functionalities that will make our grid more secure and efficient, but also save consumers money.

One of the most crucial first steps is visibility — enabling those managing the distribution of power along the grid to actually see, in real time, which sources are connected and what power is being drawn or produced from each source. Visibility is critical to managing a more distributed renewable generation-based grid from solar panels, wind turbines, storage batteries, electric cars and smart technologies.

This new, highly distributed, nimble grid will also be more reliable. More visibility not only allows generation to be deployed more efficiently, but also allows operators to see potential trouble spots and address them quickly and more effectively.

Visibility also empowers consumers by allowing users to see how their energy is delivered to them, including rate structures, costs and usage patterns. Consumers armed with such information gain an ability to alter their own usage patterns to reduce their consumption at critical times, saving themselves money and ultimately making the grid more efficient. Empowering consumers also, to some extent, means empowering innovation — giving entrepreneurs who are developing new energy delivery products and services the ability to access the grid and develop solutions at a reasonable cost.

None of these capabilities is so futuristic that they could not be realized in the very near term. In fact, some of this technology is already available, even if it is not yet widely used. Yet the smart grid of the future exists more as an ambition than an achievement.

Our focus as a nation on reinventing our electric power grid, much like the weather, has been running hot and cold. We need to make the switch — to turn up the heat on the demand for innovation. We need more capital, more research and development, and more commitment from policymakers at all levels of government.

The time has come for those of us who use electric power to demand more from our grid, those who manage it and the technologists who would take it to the next level.

For more on how smart technologies can shake up America's power grid, check out the infographic below:

Image credits: Dave Lauridsen/The Nature Conservancy

Lynn Scarlett is Global Managing Director for Public Policy at The Nature Conservancy. In this role, she directs policy in the United States and the 35 countries in which the Conservancy operates with a focus on climate and nature- based solutions. Most recently, she was the Deputy Secretary and Chief Operating Officer of the U.S. Department of the Interior, Lynn also served at Interior as the Acting Secretary of the Interior in 2006. 

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