Until we finally build a "smart" electricity grid, our vast renewable energy reserves will never do more than look good on paper. Without it, we can't move clean electricity from where it's generated (often across the country), and can't effectively tap into our vast renewable energy reserves.
Let's look just at wind power. "The U.S. Great Plains are the Saudi Arabia of wind power," says Lester Brown of the Energy Policy Institute. "Three wind-rich U.S. states -- North Dakota, Kansas and Texas -- have enough harnessable wind to meet national electricity needs."
Rob Morgan, chief development officer of the U.S.-Australian solar company Ausra, says its concentrating solar power technology could be scaled to provide all of U.S. electric power on a square of land 92 miles on a side -- taking up less than one percent of U.S. deserts.
So we can stop burning coal then? Unfortunately no, because we have to move the electricity from where it's generated to population centers that may be thousands of miles away. And that's a huge challenge with our current, outmoded grid.
We need an electricity superhighway, but instead, according to the New York Times' Matthew Wald, we have "a system conceived 100 years ago to let utilities prop each other up, reducing blackouts and sharing power in small regions. It resembles a network of streets, avenues and country roads." In other words, you can't get there from here.
Al Gore puts it best: "New high-voltage, low-loss underground lines can be designed with 'smart' features that provide consumers with sophisticated information and easy-to-use tools for conserving electricity, eliminating inefficiency and reducing their energy bills. The cost of this modern grid -- $400 billion over 10 years -- pales in comparison with the annual loss to American business of $120 billion due to the cascading failures that are endemic to our current balkanized and antiquated electricity lines."
If the grid were just five percent more efficient, we could have energy savings equivalent to taking 53 million cars off the road. In many parts of the U.S., the only way a utility even knows the power is out somewhere in their system is if they receive a customer complaint.
There are many facets to the smart grid, but being able to move renewable energy long distances with very low line losses is the primary one. And in a smart system, customers will be equipped with smart meters that will report their real-time power use to the utility. Their smart appliances will be able to be cycled up or down in response to the needs of the grid. And they'd get credits on their bills in exchange for allowing their power use to be reduced at peak times.
Under a plan called vehicle-to-grid (V2G), hybrid car battery packs can be hooked into the grid and upload electricity at peak times. Hybrids can also be used to provide backup power during blackouts. It sounds like Buck Rogers, but it actually works. Further, used hybrid car batteries can also be used to store night-generated electricity for use during peaks.
Speaking to TV host Rachel Maddow, President-elect Obama says that a smart grid is a top priority when he hits the ground in late January. "If we're going to be serious about renewable energy," he said, "I want to be able to get wind power from North Dakota to population centers, like Chicago. And we're going to have to have a smart grid if we want to use plug-in hybrids. Then we want to be able to have ordinary consumers sell back the electricity that's generated from those car batteries back into the grid. That can create five million new jobs, just in new energy."
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