[Part 6 of a series based on my conversation with Matt McGovern, Matt McLarty, and Rick Hauffe about America's energy future.]
Suppose I offered you a way to cut your electric usage (and your bill) 15%. Would you say, "I don't believe in global warming, so no thanks"?
The fiscal conservatives in my house sure wouldn't. That's another reason we like H.R. 2454, the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACESA). Even if you own vacation property in Canada and are cheering global warming (a position I find perfectly understandable), or even if you frown on drowning Tuvalu but don't think American energy policy can help, you'll have a hard time coming up with an argument against more efficient, reliable use of electricity.
ACESA offers big support for energy efficiency by supporting the development of smart grid technology (see Sections 141–146, among others). Think of our current electrical transmission grid as the Tin Man. Add a brain—or lots of little computers—to better manage distribution and peak loads. That's the smart grid (or at least the shortest description I can give you here).
The smart grid does a lot: makes it easier to move power from fluctuating sources like wind and solar where its needed, reeduces the chances of power outages, and strengthens our power supply against natural and manmade disruptions. Of course, it involves computers, which means the smart grid requires hacker-proofing. But that's not stopping GE and the U.S. military from working on smart microgrid tech that could keep the lights for Marine bases and others in emergencies. Smart grid tech could also support the kind of local self-sufficient power grids that would foil al-Qaeda hackers' dreams of shutting down us infidels' power nationwide (not to mention bust up the business model of giant power corporations).
I'll let Tony handle some of the bigger engineering issues (he's studied power systems engineering; he'll have some expertise to contribute!). Let's focus on what the smart grid means on the small scale: i.e., in your house. One aspect of the smart grid is essentially load management with more computing power and more personal control. Your utility puts a computer brain in your electric meter and connects it wirelessly to various appliances. You access the system, review your household's energy usage, and set goals for your energy usage. You program in times when you won't be home or won't otherwise really expect to use lots of power. The computer does the rest.
Cold day comes, wind chill 40 below, Sioux Valley hits peak load, your computer jumps in and eases off power consumption by shutting off your fridge for a few minutes, your water heater by a few more. Your home portion of the smart grid can do the same thing on regular days: AC kicks in for a bit, the system can keep your power consumption down by powering down other appliances that aren't in demand. Do that in every house all year, and you can get some serious power savings.
Smart grid technology isn't pie-in-the-sky stuff. Heartland is working with the Rural Learning Center to examine smart grid tech in Howard, South Dakota. IBM and Consert just completed a six-month trial of smart-grid technology like this in North Carolina. With controllers attached to hot water heaters, air conditioners, and pool pumps, residential customers average 15% energy savings. Some customers saved 40%; one cut power usage by 50%.
Improvements in efficiency have already cut our annual increase in electricity demand from 7–8% back in the 1960s to about 1% now. The EIA predicts average demand to increase at about that rate over the next 20 years, a total 26% increase by 2030. Your power company makes plans to build big, new, expensive power plants based on numbers like that.
Now imagine if we built a smart grid and cut our electric usage by another 15%. That drops the total demand increase through 2030 from 26% to 7% from current levels (the numbers sound weird, but trust me: there are exponents involved). That's a whole lot of power that Basin Electric doesn't have to generate. That's a whole lot of power plants we can wait to build in 2035 instead of 2015. That's a whole lot of capital that your power co-op won't have to get by raising your rates (like the 26.6% rate increase Black Hills Power needs, in part to build a new power plant in Gillette). That's less coal we mine and burn now and more non-renewable fossil fuel reserves we leave for our grandkids, just in case they need it. That's more time we have to improve wind and solar and other alternative energy technologies to replace fossil fuels.
These potential energy savings are one of the reasons it is so important to understand that the American Clean Energy and Security Act is not just cap and trade. Putting a market price on carbon emissions is an important part of ACESA, but the bill contains much more than that one policy. The smart grid is another part of this legislation that will put America on track for a sensible and sustainable energy future.
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