Tom Raftery from RedMonk talked about smart grids, with the interesting conclusion that they will not only make renewable power more feasible but will make it cheap.
On wholesale electricity markets, apparently, the cheapest power is always the one with highest renewable content. Sounds unbelievable, no? It's because renewables will take any bid, because there's no startup cost. Coal or gas plants, on the other hand, are massive facilities which require startup time and cost. You can't just flip a switch and put them online; but you can do exactly that with solar and wind power. He also claimed that photovoltaics are the cheapest power in terms of life-cycle cost, simply because they have no moving parts and require almost no maintenance for forty years or more. (I'm skeptical of this, but nuclear has been proven to be more expensive than solar; perhaps with clearer accounting, other generation will as well.)
Today our grids aren't nimble enough to take advantage of renewables at large scale because of the intermittency problem, which requires huge amounts of electricity storage that is just not economically feasible today. Smart grids, however, help solve this problem in two ways. First, by turning the grid into an internet, where it is read-write rather than a broadcast medium, we can take an excess of power being generated in one place (due to high winds or a sunny day) and route it a few hundred miles away where there's more demand (due to night coming on, or cooler weather), then send power in the other direction an hour later when conditions have changed. Secondly, as Amory Lovins has also mentioned, combining smart grids with large-scale adoption of electric vehicles would allow the EV's to act as the massive storage capacity for the grid. Raftery took this a step further, though, pointing out that not only are there times of day when electricity is cheaper, but there will be times of day when the utility company actually pays you to use electricity, to help its load-balancing. This is not science fiction, he cited a couple cases in Australia where it has already happened. You can then sell the electricity you stored in your EV's batteries back to the grid later on (and have them pay you a second time). He said that this was an under-the-radar part of the business plan at Better Place; since they will own the batteries of the EV's they lease, they could theoretically connect their standby inventory to the grid, buying electricity at cheap rates and selling it back at peak times for a profit. (Which would help the electric utilities as well, because buying the stored electricity would still be cheaper than firing up extra power plants at peak times.)
He also mentioned demand response systems, which will be a huge new business market in the coming decades, with or without smart grids. Apparently the higher-resolution power meters these days are so good that you can tell the make and model of the appliances in a home just from their cyclic power signatures. You can even see when your fridge needs repair, by how it uses electricity differently. This raises privacy concerns, but also allows for intelligent upgrades of equipment for consumers. Connecting smart meters in your home (or factory or office) with smart grids, what if your power meter could poll all power generators to find out prices and carbon footprints for all generators online at the moment, and decide in real time what the cheapest and greenest power is to buy? (And remember that the greenest and cheapest will usually be the same.) Software-wise it's not a hard problem; it's like eBay with some scripting. But it requires a complete overhaul of the grid infrastructure to enable it. Raftery estimates that smart grids could save 2 gigatons of CO2 per year, so clearly this infrastructure is worth the investment.
Read more on ETech 2009:
Coal and Cows, Ecological Madoff and the Brittle Rich
ETech 2009: Adobe on Sustainability
ETech 2009 roundup
Photo: Chicago at night. Credit: flickr/TroyMcClureSF, Creative Commons license.
Fantastic write-up Jeremy, thanks a million.
One small quibble though, James and I were initially going to do this talk as a double-act, however we couldn't really justify the carbon footprint of both of us flying transatlantic so I gave the talk instead while James remained in the UK.
Terribly sorry, Tom. I've fixed the article to put your name in it.
No problem Jeremy - James' name wasn't taken off the schedule so it was an easy mistake to make.
and thanks for correcting it so quickly.