How Does the Smart Grid System Benefit the Environment?

How Does the Smart Grid System Benefit the Environment?

Grace Smoot

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You may have heard about how the traditional electrical grid works. But did you know that the Smart Grid System could replace this traditional grid, revolutionize the power industry, and benefit the environment? Thanks to its pretty unique features. But one step at a time.

The Smart Grid System is an upgrade to the traditional system that infuses technology and communication into the current grid. This produces a more efficient grid that reduces energy demand peaks and can effectively incorporate renewable resources (at naturally fluctuating levels) into its network.

To understand why the future of our environment may just depend on the Smart Grid System, let’s begin with how it is different from our traditional grid. 

Here’s How a Smart Grid System Is Different than Our Traditional Grids

To start with, our current electrical grid was built in the 1890s. And this is also reflected in its core technology.

The traditional grid works something like this:

  1. Power plants generate electricity
  2. Transformers step up voltage for transmission
  3. Transmission lines transport electricity over long distances
  4. Neighborhood transformer step down voltage
  5. Transformers on poles step down electricity before it enters houses

This worked fine in the past when energy demand was much lower, but our electricity usage is steadily increasing and a multiple of what it was not even a century ago. And since 1980, there has been an increase in the amount of renewable energy consumed, like solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal power. But those renewables cannot be effectively incorporated into the traditional grid. 

With these energy increases and a movement towards renewable resources, our traditional grid simply cannot keep up.

Our World in Data: Energy Consumption by Source – United States

To understand how the Smart Grid (SG) System benefits the environment, we first need to understand that the SG is NOT an entirely new electrical system. Rather, it is a modification of the current electrical system that adds technology and advanced instrumentation into the current grid. It increases the level of communication and flow of information between the SG and the everyday consumer. 

Here are three main differences between the traditional grid and the SG:

  1. One-way vs. Two-way Distribution: The traditional grid is one-way distribution, meaning that power can only be distributed from the main plant using existing infrastructure. The SG is two-way distribution, meaning that power is still distributed from the main plant, but the consumer can also put energy back into the grid via technology such as solar panels.
  2. Centralized vs. Decentralized Distribution: The traditional grid generates power at a central location, making it hard to incorporate energy alternatives into the system. The SG can distribute power from multiple plants, which reduces peak time usage and decreases the likelihood of power outages.
  3. Manual vs. Self-Monitoring: With the traditional grid, a technician must go to the source of a problem to make repairs in the event of an outage or technological problems. The SG can practice self-monitoring and self-repair without the need for a technician.

This Is How a Smart Grid System Impacts the Environment

You’ve just seen that the main differences of the SG are that it is a two-way, decentralized distribution with self-monitoring capabilities. Below is what exactly that means for our environment.  

Advantages of a Smart Grid SystemEnvironmental impact
Two-way distribution It allows a two-way flow of energy, allowing consumers to feed their excess energy (e.g., through solar panels) into the grid in case they produce more than they need.
Decentralized distributionIt allows for the tying in of renewable energy sources (next to consumer-produced energy).
Self-monitoringIt reduces greenhouse gas emissions, pollutants, and water use thanks to a reduced peak load of energy consumption.

How Does the Smart Grid’s Two-Way Distribution Impact the Environment

Two-way distribution is a huge factor that separates the SG from the traditional grid in terms of energy efficiency. In the SG, the consumer can put the electricity that they generate from solar panels back into the grid so that it can be used for some other purpose. This two-way flow of electricity between generators and consumers is crucial to ensure that we do not waste any energy that is generated but provide it to others instead.

By 2030, the SG is capable of increasing the current grid’s efficiency by 9%. That number may not seem like a lot, but that equates to saving 400 billion kilowatt-hours each year. It also equates to saving 42 billion dollars in the first year of its operation alone. 

The SG is more energy efficient because it uses less energy to perform the same task that the traditional grid does. This, in turn, lowers the cost for consumers and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Fewer emissions lessen the effect of global warming. Cue the domino effect.

How Does the Smart Grid’s Decentralized Distribution Impact the Environment

The traditional grid is a centralized system, meaning electricity is generated at a large scale at one location and then transmitted to wherever it is needed. The SG is decentralized which allows for the tying-in of renewable resources such as solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal power.

Having a centralized system negatively affects the environment because centralized systems largely depend on nonrenewable resources (i.e. coal and natural gas) to generate electricity

These materials release toxic greenhouse gases into the atmosphere which gradually break down the ozone layer. On top of that, coal and natural gas power plants degrade the land, fragment wildlife habitat, and contaminate the waterways and groundwater.

Because the SG also balances peak energy load times and increases energy efficiency, we can more effectively transition away from nonrenewable resources and towards renewable resources. Leaving coal and natural gas in the past while turning our attention to solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal power is a step in the right direction of becoming a more sustainable society. 

How Does the Smart Grid’s Self-Monitoring Impact the Environment

Self-monitoring is another factor separating the traditional grid from the SG. The number one way that the SG can reduce energy consumption is through the use of smart meters. Because the SG is self-monitoring, it can detect peak times, identify problems, and recover from an outage faster via these smart meters. 

Smart meters are digital meters that show the consumer how much electricity they use when they use it, and how much it costs to use. They can also control when compatible devices are activated so that appliances requiring a lot of energy, e.g. washing machines and dishwashers, would run during low times instead of during peak times. Thus saving energy.

But the traditional grid has analog meters which do not communicate with the consumer, making it impossible to know what devices use the most energy and when the peak times are. 

Reducing energy consumption can decrease greenhouse gas emissions, pollutants, and water use. Because smart meters are capable of detecting peak times, consumers can make better-informed decisions on when and how to use their electricity.

What Are Some of the Drawbacks of the Smart Grid System

Although there are countless advantages to the SG, no piece of technology is without drawbacks. And here are two drawbacks that come with the SG:

  1. Potential Cyber-Security Risks: Because the SG can be accessed remotely and all parts of the grid are interconnected, a cyber attack on one part of the grid has the potential to radiate out and affect parts of the grid. Measures to prevent cyber-attacks include encryption, authentication, security patches, and malware removal. Next to ensuring that attacking on part of the SG doesn’t let the whole system collapse.
  2. Initial Investment Costs: There is no question that implementing the SG on a large scale will be extremely expensive. It is estimated that it could take between $338 billion and $476 billion to fully implement the SG. Those numbers are undoubtedly huge, but they could also result in net benefits between $1,294 billion and $2,028 billion. Funding for the SG is well below levels needed to achieve implementation by 2030, with the average yearly spending being only $3.61 billion. 

If you look at the SG as a purely economic problem, it is obvious that the benefits outweigh the cost. But especially the environmental benefits of the SG make it a prime candidate as the new technology to replace the traditional grid

Final Thoughts

The traditional power grid has faithfully served us for over a hundred years; however, the increased energy demand and shift in energy supply have left it fragile and outdated.

The SG will save resources, time, and energy while allowing us to gradually transition away from nonrenewable resources and towards renewable resources. We have already done irreparable damage to our environment. And implementing the SG sooner rather than later is a step in the right direction and at least provides a beacon of hope in creating a more sustainable future for generations to come.

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