Why installing more solar & building more EVs won’t be enough.
Just like you can’t build a great building without a solid foundation, installing more solar panels & building more Electric Vehicles (EVs) won’t be enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions if the underlying infrastructure (i.e. the electric grid) is unable to effectively manage and distribute the renewable sources of energy.
The electric grid is an interconnected network of generating stations, transformers & power lines that delivers electricity to the consumers. The current electric grid as we know it, was developed in the post World War Ⅱ era, when the demand for electricity was growing and utilities found it more efficient to build centralized power stations that could cater to a larger customer base. Its structure is simple — power generated from the power plants is distributed through transmission lines to residential and commercial buildings. In essence, power flow is unidirectional.
However, with the passage of time, the advent of computers, refrigerators, microwaves and other electronic appliances brought about rising demands of electricity, which in turn led to the burning of more coal, natural gas and crude oil. Consequently, the burning of these fossil fuels led to the accumulation of harmful chemicals in our atmosphere, and after several decades of advocating for change by the scientific community, the public finally took notice and a consensus was formed — climate change is real.
Today we’re investing heavily in renewable energy such as solar, wind, hydro etc. to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Particularly, photovoltaics (PV) as been one of the fastest growing source of global renewable energy in recent years.
PVs rely on the sun to generate power. First off, the sun is available only for a certain number of hours in any given day. During winters, these hours become shorter. Tomorrow an expected rainfall, storm or a cloudy day will further lower the sunshine hours. You get the idea.
What do you think happens when millions of people tune in to watch the Super Bowl (103M)? ICC Cricket World Cup (1.5B)? FIFA World Cup (3.5B)? A majority of these matches take place during the night, thereby rendering PVs ineffective. This is where fossil fuels come into play because they supply inexpensive power consistently. Similarly, a likely scenario that we’re going to see in the near future is when millions of people come back home from work in the evening and let their EVs charge through the night. If the electricity used to charge these vehicles is ultimately being produced by burning fossil fuels, then what is the whole point?
If you’re wondering why we aren’t buying batteries to store the solar energy for night-time use, the answer is simple: they’re currently far too expensive.
On the bright side, there is a solution. Just like everything else in this world is becoming smart (smart watch, smart mirror, smart TV…), why leave out the electric grid? Smart grid is the evolution of the current electric grid and it solves the complex problem of distributing energy by integrating information technology with the current power system network, i.e. it enables a two-way communication between the utilities and its customers to effectively manage and distribute energy. In essence, power flow is bidirectional.
The smart grid provides numerous benefits such as,
1. Creation of distributed generation market: Let’s assume city X and city Y have 100% PV coverage but X produces excess solar power whereas Y consumes more power than it produces (for example, X can be sparsely populated & located in a desert whereas Y could be heavily populated & located in a region with less sunshine duration). A smart grid, due to its bidirectional power flow, creates an energy market enabling X to sell its excess power to Y.
2. Demand Response (DR): DR is the change in electric consumption of a consumer from their normal consumption pattern in response to changes in the price of electricity over time. During summers, when it’s extremely hot outside many of us prefer to stay indoors and switch on air-conditioners and other electronic appliances, which end up putting an intense pressure on the grid. DR programs prevent the use of operating reserves by either directly controlling the consumer’s load or by providing price incentives to the consumers to decrease their load.
Certainly, there are plenty of other benefits too such as load balancing, quicker restoration of electricity after a blackout, decreasing consumer electric bills, decreasing peak electricity prices, decreasing greenhouse gas emissions & prevention of building new power plants due to the efficient use of existing power. However, I’m not going to dwell onto each of them here.
In conclusion, the electric grid is evolving to meet the demands of the 21st century and if done right, smart grids could reduce carbon emissions by 12 percent by 2030. Like everything else, it comes with its own set of benefits & challenges and current research is being undertaken in the various components of the smart grid to improve its overall security & stability.
The objective of this post was to promulgate the idea of smart grids to the general public by providing a succinct explanation of it, and I hope you learned something new today!