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Smart grid could reduce emissions by 12 percent:
More intelligent power grid can reduce energy use and carbon impacts


A smart electrical power grid could decrease electric energy use and carbon emissions in the utility sector up to 12 percent by 2030 — saving enough energy to power 70 million homes, according to a recent report published by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

The report, The Smart Grid: An Estimation of the Energy and CO2 Benefits, shows a direct link between the smart grid and carbon emissions. It evaluates how different functions of the smart grid could substantially reduce energy use and carbon emissions — both directly by employing new technology, and indirectly by reducing the cost of achieving savings from energy efficiency and renewables.

Why it matters:

A smart grid could play a role in mitigating climate change by reducing the carbon footprint of the electric power system. The report indicates that a fully implemented U.S. smart grid could prevent the equivalent of 442 million metric tons, or 66 typical coal power plants' worth of carbon emissions, from entering the atmosphere. In other words, it could eliminate the need to generate the amount of electricity it takes to power 70 million of today's homes.

"By making the grid smart, we make it more efficient and more accommodating of renewables, and we're able to cut down on the amount of carbon we emit to generate the electricity we need," said Rob Pratt, the PNNL scientist who led the research team. "This report suggests that we could substantially reduce emissions by deploying a smart grid."


The research team analyzed nine different ways, or mechanisms, by which the smart grid could reduce carbon emissions. Direct mechanisms are those that reduce electricity and CO2 emissions when smart grid functions are implemented. Direct mechanisms range from incorporating smart grid-enabled diagnostics in buildings to benefiting from the conservation effect of consumers being more aware about their own energy use — a mechanism made possible by a smarter grid.

Indirect mechanisms, on the other hand, are realized when smart grid capabilities are used to reduce the costs of deploying and operating renewable energy generation and energy efficiency programs. These cost savings can be turned into carbon savings by reinvesting in additional carbon reductions down the road. For example, using demand response and energy storage devices to bring renewable energy onto the grid is one indirect mechanism that can reduce the need to build additional power plants—called spinning generators—to provide the increased reserve power that is required as a backup due to the intermittent nature of renewables such as wind or solar.

When combined, the direct and indirect reduction mechanisms could reduce the electric grid's carbon footprint by12 percent or more, Pratt said. "This is very significant in light of future renewable portfolio goals of 20 to 30 percent set for the electricity sector in many states for the 2030 time frame, with even higher subsequent goals being contemplated as part of a national carbon policy."

What's next?

A basic perspective of PNNL's analysis is that during the next 20 years, smart grid technology will become pervasive in the U.S. because of the cost efficiencies and reliability improvements it provides for the electric power system. Once purchased, this same infrastructure can be leveraged to provide the additional benefits identified in this report with little, if any, marginal cost.

Acknowledgements: This report was funded by the DOE's Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability.

Research team: The PNNL research team for this report includes Robert Pratt, Patrick Balducci, Katherine Cort, Dr. Srinivas Katipamula, Dr. Michael Kintner-Meyer, Dr. Thomas Sanquist, Dr. Kevin Schneider, and Thomas Secrest of PNNL. Clint Gerkensmeyer, consulting engineer, was also part of the team.

References: The Smart Grid: An Estimation of the Energy and CO2 Benefit, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, January 2010.

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