DEAR EARTHTALK: What is the so-called
"smart grid" I've been hearing about, and how can it save
energy and money?
AMERICA'S ELECTRICITY GRID is built upon what many consider to be an antiquated principle: Make large amounts of electricity and have it always available to end users whether they need it or not. It's much like the way most home water heaters work in keeping water constantly hot even when it is not being used. It is also a strictly one-way relationship with utilities supplying power to end users, but not also vice-versa.
The smart grid concept is predicated on a two-way flow of energy - and information - between electricity generators and end users. The system not only delivers power to end users as needed, depending on demand; it also gathers power from end users that produce their own - homes and businesses that generate solar, wind or geothermal power themselves - when they have more than they need.
Some 42 states and Washington, DC already require utilities to have systems in place to buy excess energy generated by their customers. But, writes journalist Michael Prager in E - The Environmental Magazine, "because they can't know in real time that power is coming in, utilities generate as much as they would have anyway." He adds that when information flows both ways, end users will be able to send information back to the grid specifying how much power they need and when they will need it. They'll also be able to communicate when they have excess power available to upload to the grid.
On the forefront of research into the feasibility of the smart grid on a large scale is the Future Renewable Electric Energy Delivery and Management (FREEDM) Systems Center, established in 2008 by the National Science Foundation and headquartered at North Carolina State University. FREEDM is partnering with universities, industry and national laboratories in 28 states and nine countries to develop technologies they say will "revolutionize the nation's power grid and speed renewable electric-energy technologies into every home and business." So far, some 60 utilities, alternative energy startups, electrical equipment manufacturers and other firms have signed onto the new partnership.
One such utility, Colorado-based Xcel Energy, has even begun to put smart grid technology into practice on a trial basis for a small percentage of its customer base. The utility has spent some $100 million outfitting 35,000 homes and businesses in and around the city of Boulder with automation and communications capabilities to enable two-way communication of electricity needs.
Xcel won't have enough data to assess energy and cost savings until early 2010, but analysts are optimistic that the utility's costly experiment will reap benefits down the road for consumers, utilities and the environment. Indeed, environmentalists and economists alike have high hopes that widespread implementation of such "intelligent" systems could help usher in a new age of unprecedented energy efficiency, emissions reductions and cost savings around the United States and beyond.
DEAR EARTHTALK: If you have an
electric or plug-in hybrid car, you're paying for electricity
rather than gasoline all or most of the time. How does that cost compare
to a gas-powered car's cost-per-mile? And since the electricity
may be generated from some other polluting source, does it really work
out to be better for the environment?
WHEN YOU COMPARE battery to gasoline power, electricity wins hands down. A 2007 study by the non-profit Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) calculated that powering a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) would cost the equivalent of roughly 75 cents per gallon of gasoline - a price not seen at the pump for 30 years.
The calculation was made using an average cost of electricity of 8.5 cents per kilowatt hour and the estimated distance the car would travel on one charge, versus a car that gets 25 miles per gallon and is powered by $3 per gallon gasoline. Change any of those variables and the relative costs change. For example, substituting a car that gets 50 miles per gallon doubles the comparative electrical cost (though it still works out much cheaper than gasoline). On the other hand, in some areas where wind or hydropower is wasted at night - just when the PHEV would be charging - the utility might drop the kilowatt hour cost to two to three cents, making the charge much less costly.
And don't worry that we'll run out of electrical power: A 2005 study by the U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory estimated that three-quarters of the country's current small vehicle fleet could be charged by our existing electrical grid without building new power plants. (And if all those cars were replaced by PHEVs, it would eliminate the need for 6.5 billion barrels of oil per day, or 52 percent of current U.S. oil imports.).
Regarding environmental impact, charging up your car with electricity from the grid also wins handily over filling up at the gas station. In the most comprehensive PHEV study to date, released in 2007 by EPRI and the non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), results predict that all greenhouse gases will be reduced as PHEVs begin to penetrate the car market. Estimated cumulative greenhouse gas reductions from 2010 to 2050, depending upon how fast PHEVs take hold, range from 3.4 to 10.3 billion tons.
More than one half of our national energy grid is powered by coal, and in areas where PHEVs are charged through coal-provided electricity, says NRDC, there is the possibility of increased levels of soot and mercury emissions. However, charging up can be much less of a guilt-ridden affair where cleaner electrical sources like wind and solar are available. The website HybridCars.com points out that as more power plants are required to develop green power and emit fewer greenhouse gases, the environmental and health benefits will further increase.
DEAR EARTHTALK: Some say that polar
bears are going to disappear in 50 years, but Alaskan officials insist
their populations are recovering. What's the real story?
THERE IS NO DOUBT that polar bears are in serious trouble. Already on the ropes due to other human threats, their numbers are falling faster than ever as a result of retreating ice due to global warming. The nonprofit International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which added the polar bear to its "Red List" of the world's most imperiled wildlife back in 2006, predicts a 30 percent decline in population for the great white rulers of the Arctic within three generations (about 45 years).
The nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity presents an even more pessimistic forecast. If current warming trends continue, they say, two-thirds of all polar bears - including all of Alaska's polar bears - will be extinct by 2050. Both organizations agree that the species as a whole will likely be wiped out completely within 100 years unless humans can get global warming in check.
The erroneous notion that Alaska wildlife officials don't believe the polar bear is in trouble was put forth by Alaska governor Sarah Palin when she initiated a suit against the federal government in hopes of overturning its decision to include the polar bear under the umbrella of endangered species protection. "I strongly believe that adding them to the list is the wrong move at this time," Palin wrote in a January 2008 New York Times Op Ed piece. "My decision is based on a comprehensive review by state wildlife officials of scientific information from a broad range of climate, ice and polar bear experts."
The real story is that affording the polar bear endangered species protection would bring further regulations capping greenhouse gas emissions, a threat to Alaska's main economic driver: oil revenues. Alaska professor Rick Steiner uncovered the misinformation in Palin's claims when he found evidence that the state's top wildlife officials agreed with federal findings that polar bears are headed toward extinction: "So, here you have the state's marine mammal experts, three or four of them, very reputable scientists, agreeing with the federal proposed rule to list polar bears and with the USGS [United States Geological Survey] studies showing that polar bears are in serious trouble," said Steiner.
A solid link between global warming and polar bear mortality emerged in 2004 when researchers were surprised to find four drowned bears in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska's North Slope. The meltdown of sea ice - the polar ice cap had retreated a record 160 miles to the north - forced the bears to swim unusually long distances to find solid ice, which they depend on as hunting and fishing platforms and for rest and recuperation. And more recently, USGS researcher Steven Amstrup published findings that polar bears are "stalking, killing and eating other polar bears" as competition for scarcer food heats up.
Beyond global warming, other risks to polar bear populations include toxic contaminants in the surrounding environment as well as in the fatty tissue of the prey they rely on, conflicts with shipping, stresses from recreational polar-bear watching, oil and gas exploration and development, and overharvesting through legal and illegal hunting.
© the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine, 2009
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