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Measuring the smart-grid effect

Deployment of smart-grid systems would reduce U.S. carbon emissions from utilities 12 percent by 2030, according to DOE researchers.

Good old-fashioned guilt and frugality might go a long way toward helping the U.S. reduce its carbon footprint.

Converting the U.S. electricity grid to a series of smart grids would have a significant impact on carbon emissions from utilities mainly because the shift would tend to change people's usage habits, according to a report released last week by the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL).

Researchers at PNNL's Electricity Infrastructure Operations Center (EIOC) used real-time U.S. electric grid data, advanced software, modeling computation, and data from existing smart-grid projects to determine whether, and by how much, a series of smart grids implemented across the entire U.S. could reduce electricity use.

"The Smart Grid: An Estimation of the Energy and CO2 Benefits" authors Michael Kintner-Meyer, Rob Pratt, Tom Secrest, and Kevin Schneider in the Electricity Infrastructure Operations Center. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

The reduction in electricity use, and the subsequent reduction in power plant generation, could cut the total carbon emissions from U.S. utilities 12 percent by 2030, according to the report, "The Smart Grid: An Estimation of the Energy and CO2 Benefits" (PDF).

"That means by fully utilizing a smart grid, the nation could prevent the equivalent of 442 million metric tons, or 66 typical coal power plants' worth, of carbon emissions from entering the atmosphere each year. Those 66 power plants produce the equivalent amount of electricity needed to power 70 million of today's homes," the researchers said in a joint statement.

Smart grids--two-way computerized monitoring systems used by utilities to more efficiently distribute electricity from power plants to consumers--would allow utilities to better manage peak loads and integrate intermittent electricity produced from alternative sources such as wind.

But it's what happens at the consumer level with home monitoring and smart gridsthat is most interesting.

The researchers found that the biggest impact smart grids could have is a psychological effect on consumers who, once made aware of their usage patterns, tended to conserve a lot more electricity.

"While some energy savings can be attributed to physical effects of reducing load during peak load times, the primary basis for the savings is likely to be the effect of feedback provided to consumers on their usage patterns as part of these programs," said the report.

The model was based on a scenario in which 100 percent of the electrical grid was run on smart grids, and the carbon emissions statistics were calculated based on the emissions secreted by the average current U.S. generating power plant.

PNNL, located in Richmond, Wash., is one of 10 DOE-managed national laboratories in the U.S. The center is unique in that in addition to serving the research needs of the DOE, its operators are also permitted to take commissioned research projects and partner on research with private industry.