The path toward the U.S. smart grid — or “grid modernization” in the language of the stimulus bill — has been compared over the last few months to the buildout of the modern transportation system in an earlier era. Commerce, at that time, was heavily dependent on the manufacture and movement of physical goods. Modern roads and highways played a major role in delivering the benefits of that economic growth to diverse regions. Today, the power grid and the Internet deliver similar benefits.
It’s not a bad analogy. The power grid today is a lot like the transportation infrastructure we developed then. Heavy-duty transmission lines stretch across the nation like highways, carrying electrons quickly from manufacturing locations (power plants) to end markets. When electricity exits the highway-like transmission lines, a network of smaller, lower-level distribution lines step the power down for delivery to homes and businesses directly. It’s a system set up to accommodate centralized energy production. But as the grid gets smarter, we’ll need a electrical-transport system that’s “right sized” for distributed generation.
The proliferation of cars and good roads made it possible to live longer distances away from community services like schools, banks, stores, places of worship and restaurants, and made the distribution of mass-produced goods cheap and easy. Today, transportation accounts for about 28 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. It may have been an economically efficient development path in the short term, but it hasn’t been a good long-term solution, environmentally.
With the buildout of the smart grid, the electric system has the opportunity to repeat this path with large-scale renewable energy developments and controversial transmission line buildout — or it has a chance to take a page from the playbook of smart growth regional planners, and to develop smaller, more human-scale energy generation, storage and distribution systems that meet more of our needs locally. While New Urbanists imagine mixed-use developments and walkable communities, smart grid planners have turned their eye to microgrids.
Microgrids are, essentially, a local area network for energy use — a subset of the utility grid is networked such that on-site generation (say, natural gas generators or solar panels), energy storage devices, and local energy users can become a closed system in the event of a power outage. Microgrids aren’t technically off the grid, but they’re able to quickly support themselves without the grid’s help. They’re used for industrial operations, data center operators and hospitals today, but they are also becoming an important test-bed tool for utilities experimenting with distributed generation and other new energy technologies.
San Diego Gas & Electric’s Beach Cities Microgrid project has been garnering attention in the last week, and has been mentioned as a potential “stimulus ready” type project. Miami, as part of its Smart Grid Miami project, has said it wants to experiment with integration of renewables and energy storage (with the help of its partner Cisco). In the months ahead, we’ll probably see many more of these projects emerge.