From: CNN
Published March 2, 2009 07:40 AM

Can a 'smart grid' turn us on to energy efficiency?

(CNN) -- Think of the future of green energy and the mental picture you may conjure up is one of vast solar plants glinting like a beetle's eye in the sun, or ranks of wind turbines turning in the breeze.

While the years to come will feature more of these power sources, one of the most potent weapons in the green energy arsenal is actually remarkably prosaic: efficiency.

According to research sponsored by the U.S. Government, improving the efficiency of the national electricity grid by 5 per cent would be the equivalent of eliminating the fuel use and carbon emissions of 53 million cars.


For years environmentalists have been talking up the idea of a "smart grid" as a way of achieving this - an electricity distribution system that uses digital technology to eliminate waste and improve reliability.

Advocates of a "smart grid" also say that it would open up new markets for large and small scale alternative energy producers by decentralizing generation.

"It would give consumers the potential to have a much more complex relationship with their energy supplier," says John Loughhead, Executive Director of the United Kingdom Energy Research Center.

"Essentially, with a smart grid, traffic goes both ways. If you wanted to install some kind of micro-generation facility in your home, you could use it to sell to the grid and get money back."

Using smart grid technology your future home would be as likely to be powered by electricity from a neighbor's roof-top solar panel, or a biomass generator on the edge of town, as from a traditional power plant 50 or 100 miles away.

Such a scheme would also use "smart meters" to help consumers reduce their consumption by providing efficiency advice, as well as real-time price information and even coordinating household devices to take advantage of cheaper, off-peak, power.

"You might want to think, 'Electricity is expensive right now, so I'll turn the freezer off, or turn the fridge down for half an hour,'" says Loughhead.

"[With a smart meter] of course you wouldn't have to worry about those decisions, it would all be automated. Most of the technology exists to do this now. The issue is doing everything at a large enough scale, at an affordable price. It's a deployment issue."

Already prototype city-wide schemes are being developed in Austin, Texas, and Boulder, Colorado. But the huge investment and political will needed to create such a system nationally has so far been lacking.

"Even with political support... this is not something that could be done overnight," says Loughland.

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