Smart Grid vs. Renewable Energy: Where Should We Invest?

  • Published on June 15th, 2009

Smart Grid Technology Meeting energy needs while being efficient and using environmentally responsible technologies is probably the single greatest change that needs to happen to alter the effects of climate change now.  In the United States and the European Union, governments are backing smart grid and renewable energy programs. Undoubtedly, the two technologies go hand-in-hand, but where should we put our efforts (and dollars/euros) first?

What is a smart grid?  According to the US Department of Energy:

Grid 2030 vision (PDF 1.1 MB) calls for the construction of a 21st century electric system that connects everyone to abundant, affordable, clean, efficient, and reliable electric power anytime, anywhere. We can achieve this through a smart grid, which would integrate advanced functions into the nation’s electric grid to enhance reliability, efficiency, and security, and would also contribute to the climate change strategic goal of reducing carbon emissions. These advancements will be achieved by modernizing the electric grid with information-age technologies, such as microprocessors, communications, advanced computing, and information technologies.

President Obama has funded smart grid technologies in the Economic Stimulus Package, and there is no doubt that a large amount of power is wasted with our current grid system; however, would it be better to invest in renewable energy now?  Off-Grid explains:

The greedy and slothful companies are in fact motivated by billions of economic stimulus dollars being handed out. The stimulus money could be used more effectively installing renewable power and microgrids in local communities. Harvesting extra efficiency from the national grid could postpone the next power plant, but so could introducing widespread household-level renewables.  Installing micro-grids everywhere  would cut down on the losses made in transmission.

The current national grid system is inefficient. Large amounts of power is lost in transmission and generating stations.  Off-Grid reports:

Transmission and distribution lines are imperfect conductors, with over 10% of power lost as heat. If these so-called line losses were reduced by a tenth on the distribution system alone, the power saved would equal all the wind generation installed in the U.S. in 2006, according to the industry’s Electric Power Research Institute, or EPRI. That’s 2,454 megawatts, or approximately the equivalent of three typical coal-fired power plants.

Why haven’t the utility companies already implemented smart grid technologies using their own profits?  The answer is because they are motivated by money, and there has been no incentive to do so until Obama’s stimulus package came along. The European Union faces another problem from its aging grid system.  According to a report from Europe’s leading science academies, the EU will not be able to distribute the renewable energy (20% of all energy) they have committed to build by 2020.  In fact, problems with the EU grid could appear as soon as 2011.  A solution is to create off-grid and micro-grid supplies for small communities rather than overhaul the entire grid system.  Off-Grid explains:

Scandinavian countries potentially have excess capacity in hydroelectric plants that could, ideally, be sold to places such as Germany. If agreements can be made with north African countries, solar power collected in the Sahara desert could be transported up into southern Europe. “In order to do that, you need to design the transmission system so it can cope with the large power flows through existing countries’ networks [but] Italy’s transmission system is not designed for that, nor is Spain’s.”

Distributing energy efficiently is important no matter the source, but we need to invest in alternative energy now.  Creating micro grids that use renewable energy seems like the logical first step while the larger grid infrastructure system is improved.

Image:  US Department of Energy

About the Author

Jennifer lives on 160 acres off-the-grid in a home built with her own two hands (and several more skilled pairs of hands) from forest fire salvaged timber. Her home is powered by a micro-hydro turbine, and she has been a vegetarian for 21 years. Jennifer graduated from Humboldt State University with a degree in art education and has been teaching art to children for over 16 years. She also spent five years teaching in a one-room schoolhouse before becoming the mother of two beautiful children. Jennifer has a Master's Degree in Early Childhood Education and is currently teaching preschool, as well as k-8 art. She enjoys writing, gardening, hiking, practicing yoga, and raising four akitas. Jennifer is the founder and editor of Eco Child's Play ( "I’ve always been concerned about the earth and our impact upon it. Now that I have children, I feel compelled to raise them with green values. From organic gardening to alternative energy, my family tries to leave a small carbon footprint." Please visit my other blog:
  • Re. "Why haven’t the utility companies already implemented smart grid technologies using their own profits?"

    The answer's a bit more complicated. Most utilities are monopolies controlled by regulators, municipalities, or cooperatives – they aren't risk takers. They must get approval before they can invest in infrastructure or they won't receive cost recovery. No cost recovery = money lost = unhappy shareholders. You would think the least "greedy" utilities would be the ones owned directly by customers – the rural electric cooperatives. However, those co-ops are the last to embrace renewables, opting for coal fired plants instead, because they're cheaper and more reliable.

    This is really a political issue. If the people want it and are willing to pay the additional cost, they it will happen. That's the direction now.

    My business is energy storage. Storage is necessary to the integration of intermittent renewables – one of the additional costs.

  • Hi, Jennifer. Hopefully some good system analysts have been looking into this, as far as which will work best. It is likely ALL of the above will be happening as fossil fuel costs continue to rise (which I believe they will do dramatically in the next five years). The human community, like other animal communities, tends to use different approaches to solve each problem, and with something as complex as the energy/environment vortex, there will be many answers tried.

  • It is very important to start to invest about green energy or renewable energy as a preventive way to help the future generations and help ourselves, this is the time to work together to apply the green technologies because tomorrow could be to late.