Americans like big things–big cars, big houses, Big Macs. And the conventional wisdom around electricity transmission is that we have to spend trillions of dollars revamping the national grid so that it can carry intermittent wind and solar energy more efficiently. Another supersized (and super-expensive) idea and one that has held back investment in renewables for fear that our poor ole’ grid can’t handle it.
Two new studies challenge the immediate necessity of a national supersmartgrid. The National Renewable Energy Lab announced in May that the power grid in Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming, Colorado and Nevada could carry 35% renewable energy by 2017 without any substantial new infrastructure. If even 27% of the WestConnect grid is powered by renewables, this would reduce carbon emissions by 25-45%.
Another report focuses on the potential for microgrids (aka “distributed generation”) to replace the massive regional power plants that currently supply most of our electricity. Distributed generation is a series of small generation facilities each of which serves one building or cluster of buildings. If you’ve got solar panels on your roof, you my friend are the proud owner of a microgrid. But there are larger applications too–think apartment buildings, medical centers, shopping malls, office parks or even residential neighborhoods or small towns. It costs much less to build a bunch of microgrids than it does to build a centralized mega-power plant and transmit that power across hundreds of miles of transmission lines. The longer the transmission line, the more power is lost, meaning higher costs and more carbon emissions.
Colorado gets the picture: A law passed earlier this year requires that 3% of utilities’ sales be from electricity generated via microgrids. And in North Carolina, Duke Energy is spending $50 million to rent solar PV systems on residential and commercial rooftops in order to create a distributed energy system for other homes in North Carolina. Now that’s what I’d call a Smart Grid.