The United Nations Climate Change Conference is convening in Cancun, Mexico from November 29 to December 10 to discuss reduction strategies for global warming and funding for programs developing nations can put in place to mitigate the impacts of climate changes.  

Can the Smart Grid solve climate change?  No, but it can reduce the amounts of emissions that we will continue to pump into the atmosphere.    Here are 6 examples of how the Smart Grid will reduce emissions:

  1.  Smart Grid technologies enable integration of clean, renewable sources of energy into the electrical grid.  Sources like solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal, once deployed, have the additional benefits of using zero to low energy requirements to aid in the extraction or harvesting of these energy sources.  Contrast that to the energy costs to extract, refine, and transport coal or oil, and the emissions equation for renewables looks even better.
  2. Smart Grid technologies make the electricity supply chain more energy-efficient.  Superconducting materials will reduce losses incurred in transmitting electricity great distances.  Distribution automation can further reduce energy waste by better matching supply to demand.  At the consumption link of the chain, there are many Smart Grid technologies that improve electricity use in commercial, industrial, and residential buildings.  Since the cleanest energy is the negawatt, any technologies that reduce the electricity load have a beneficial cumulative effect that can result in avoidance of new generation facilities.  Continuous commissioning is a combination of hardware, software, and services that use sophisticated sensors and actuators to maintain buildings at their best energy performance levels while maintaining occupant comfort.  Technology innovations go beyond the building envelopes and into the actual designs of appliances and consumer electronics to do more with less energy.
  3. Integrating generation into the distribution grid eliminates losses from long-distance transmission and puts the users much closer to the generation sources.  CHP (combined heat and power) solutions convert what is typically waste heat from generation into useful heat, reducing the need to expend more energy.  Using backup generation sources (aka BUGS) can also reduce the need for building additional peak power plants, although many BUGS units are diesel and would benefit from replacement to cleaner energy sources like natural gas. 
  4. Electrification of transportation, particularly personal vehicles, will reduce our reliance on oil, which has tremendous energy costs in its extraction, transportation, and refinement – and then there are the environmental costs.   Additionally, leveraging the energy stored within electric vehicles (EVs) can reduce the need for peaker plants during times of high demand.
  5. Energy storage time shifts generation, so electricity can be stored until it is needed.  Energy storage technologies also increase the integration of small to large scale renewables into the grid.  A significant amount of global R&D activity is focused on developing the most effective energy storage technologies.
  6. Energy management solutions for residential and commercial and industrial (C&I) applications build awareness of consumption, and a multitude of studies demonstrate that awareness can result in reductions of energy use from 5% to 20%.  The cumulative effects of everyone throttling back on electricity are reflected in less need for additional power generation from any source.  There are a number of solutions in the marketplace today, with the most interesting ones based on open source platforms and standards.     

The Smart Grid won’t cure our planet’s climate ills, but it will certainly lessen the severity of them if we continue to aggressively invest, innovate, and adopt the myriad technologies that reduce our need for energy derived from the dirtiest carbon-emitting sources like coal and oil.