Thinking Tech

A smart grid does not have to be wicked smart

Posting in Energy

Pick the low-hanging fruit first. You can computerize the local grid later. Simple coordination will do for now. Then invest the profits.

Much of the hype last year over having a "smart grid" was predicated on the idea it would take enormous changes in our electrical system to handle renewable resources.

After all, you can turn a coal plant on-and-off. You can't do that with the wind or the Sun.

Even at the height of the spin, cool heads like Vinod Khosla (right, from CNET's GreenTech blog) were arguing it was overdone. “Be careful about the hype,” he said at last year's GreenBeat conference. “Always look at the economic proposition.”

That's how he earns the big money. (You may recognize Khosla as the backer of the Dopp electrolyzer we wrote about earlier this week.)

At CNET's GreenTech, Martin Lamonica has a Reuters report about a three-year Department of Energy study, issued this week, that says what Khosla said last year.

The National Renewable Energy Lab, funded by the Department of Energy, looked at how growing solar and wind power generation is impacting WestConnect, a group of Rocky Mountain transmission companies.

Simple coordination and scheduling can easily handle a future where 30% of the region's power comes from the wind and 5% from solar, the report said. Increasing the supply of renewables to 27% of all power will also cut carbon emissions 25-45%, and reduce fuel and emission costs by 40%. (You can download the full study here.)

I like to think of the opportunities afforded by any societal change as being like a big fruit tree. Pick the low-hanging fruit first. You can computerize the local grid later. Simple coordination will do for now. Then invest the profits.

You can the same thing in your own life. Insulation is low-hanging fruit. Replacing windows, throwing another batt of fiberglass into the attic, and insulating your walls will pay off. So will a smaller car and combining trips. So will walking to restaurants instead of driving. Telecommuting is great -- I've done it for over a quarter century.

Once you get used to these advantages, once you see a return, then you can do other, more difficult things.

But seek your first opportunities in the low-hanging fruit, whatever the size of your business, whatever your personal situation. A smart grid doesn't have to be wicked smart right away, and you don't have to turn into Ed Begley Jr. to save a ton of money.

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure