A smart grid is a green grid – and that’s good news for climate change (and for the smart grid!)


By Dan Delurey

The United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen last December did not produce a new, binding agreement among countries that would govern reductions in emissions and concentrations of greenhouse gases. It does not appear, however, to have dampened the momentum for serious action on climate change in individual nations.

It also appears as though the Copenhagen meeting did give countries an opportunity to understand that there is an important tool that either is or should be in their energy toolbox that can also help in achieving climate change goals – smart grid. In Copenhagen, the Demand Response and Smart Grid Coalition (DRSG) became the first ever UN-accredited smart grid delegation to a UN climate change meeting. Why did DRSG go? What is it about smart grid that makes it, according to some, not only helpful but perhaps essential to achieving climate change goals?

The link between smart grid and climate change is actually quite straightforward – at least for those in the demand response and smart grid community. Smart grid and demand response (what we like to call the “smart grid in action”) do three things.

First, demand response and smart grid increase the amount of energy efficiency that can be wrung out of homes and businesses. This is in part due to the automated sensors and control systems that are being used in deployments. It also is in part due to the so-called “information effect”. This refers to the fact that it is well known across various industries that consumers respond to feedback by altering their actions and behaviour. The problem in electricity is that customers have never got – and still don’t get today – any good and timely informational feedback that they can use. That will change with smart grid. Customers will receive pertinent information on their usage – and its impact on emissions – in a timely and proximate manner. The early results are in, and it shows that electricity customers will respond to feedback and become more energy efficient overall – to the tune of 5-15% more efficient. This is the reason that in the United Kingdom, there is a smart metering initiative not only in the energy plan but also in its climate plan.

Second, demand response and smart grid will allow greater amounts of renewable energy to be put on an electricity system than otherwise would be the case. In fact, in the US, the DOE, FERC and NERC (the entity designated by Congress to be reliability “czar”) all came out with statements in 2009 that said that smart grid is essential to growth in renewable energy. Why? Well, one has to look at few other statistics than the fact that over 80% of the wind resource in the US is available only at night. Not only is wind an intermittent and variable resource, but so is solar. Absent the use of new monitoring, sensory, communications and control technology on the utility system, and without the ability to quickly and reliably modify the demand on the system via demand response, the operation of the grid will not be dynamic yet reliable enough to accommodate heavy doses of renewables.

The third reason is somewhat similar to the second – but it is much more complex and challenging. I refer to the introduction of large numbers of electric vehicles on the electricity grid. A move to electric vehicles appears to have a clear climate change benefit, as the direct use of carbon fuels in vehicles is replaced by electricity that can be more efficiently produced by whatever the fuel source is (and where renewable energy available only in the evening can play a major role in recharging). But many a utility executive today is of two minds when it comes to electric vehicles. On the one hand, it promises an entirely new market segment for them to serve, but on the other hand it is one that potentially means millions of vehicles constantly going on and off the grid, sometimes injecting electricity into it and other times drawing power from it. However they view it, one thing is unanimous among utility leaders – they will need a smart grid to accommodate the new world of electric transportation.

This is the message that the DRSG Coalition took to Copenhagen and by all accounts it seems to have resonated. For the first time, smart grid terms and concepts were showing up in presentations about climate change and being dropped in conversation among delegates.

Most importantly, however, were the signs that the climate change “community” was beginning to listen and take notice of the importance of smart grid to climate change. One of the leading non-governmental organisations on the climate change stage took the opportunity to release its own smart grid white paper in Copenhagen.

One of the hardest things to do in either the business or policy world can be “connecting the dots” or breaking down “silos”. In the case of the demand response and smart grid community, we need to take it upon ourselves to not just talk to the environmental/ climate change community once a year at the UN meeting. We also need to adopt as a major goal building a bridge between smart grid and climate change. A bridge that mitigates climate change by fast-track development of smart grid – that sounds like a pretty good deal for everyone, doesn’t it?