Thursday, June 24, 2010

Powering the Future: Smart Grids and Alternative Energy Sources

By: Derek Howard

Most of us don’t spend a lot of time thinking about our energy supply. We flip a switch and if the light comes on, we go about our day. However, now more than ever, electricity drives our society. We can’t, nor do we want to, live without our lights, computers and appliances; and sooner or later that smart phone is going to have to be recharged. But it’s bigger than just our immediate needs. Electricity powers everything from our street and traffic lights to our food processing plants. Even modern day gas pumps require electricity to function. A recent classroom discussion about how most people these days wouldn’t know how to begin to live without electricity really drove home the importance of this energy source. But no worries- we flip the switch and the light comes and it always will, right? Well…

The Smart Grid

The problem is that our energy supply is not infinite. This coupled with a possible world population growth of 7.5 billion by 2020 has caused many to cast a serious eye towards this issue. One solution that is showing real promise is the concept of the smart grid. Smart grids offer an improvement over traditional energy infrastructures. This new form of power grid can deliver energy in a much more efficient manner. Instead of a constant broadcast of power that the traditional model follows, the smart grid can monitor and route power only when and where it is needed. This can increase both the efficiency and cost of energy supply. One specific problem the smart grid can help with is outages. Outages cost U.S. businesses billions of dollars in lost revenue each year. The smart grid could conceivably be able to reroute power around the problem area to help lessen the impact of the outage.

One of the ways that smart grids work is by taking advantage of alternate energy sources. At a recent Technology Association of Georgia (TAG) Smart Grid Society meeting, three experts in this field talked about these sources and their impact on society.

Three alternate energy sources

Wind energy is one such source. Guest speaker Tom Garrity, retired vice-president and general manager for High Voltage Systems, Siemens Energy, Inc., spoke about how energy is the backbone of our society and the market for clean, safe energy has grown significantly. Wind can supply this kind of energy. Technology such as micro-turbines could supply homes and businesses with abundant and green power. One interesting concept he spoke of was the idea of off-shore wind farms. These farms could take advantage of ocean winds to capture and route power to inland locations through the use of smart grids.

Another alternate source of energy is biofuel. Jill Stuckey, the director of the Ga. Center of Innovation- Energy Division, is an expert on renewable energy. Biomass is an abundant and viable energy source, especially in Georgia. The state is second only to Oregon in timber production. As she put it, “We grow trees the way Iowa grows corn.” Using trees to create biomass such as wood pellets can create everything from fuel for electricity to biofuels for our cars. Even waste water can be converted into energy and the smart grids can incorporate all these possibilities.

The final speaker was Walter Brown, the chairman for the Ga. Solar Energy Association. Brown spoke about the rapid increase and growth in the field of solar energy. Over six years, the industry has seen a seven-fold growth in commercial and utility sectors. One of the biggest restraints to this clean source of energy has been the cost of silicon, required for the cells, but this cost is dropping. Solar energy can be harnessed anywhere you can install the panels, from empty fields to building and warehouse rooftops. This energy could be stored, monitored and controlled through the use of smart grids.

Energy tends to be one of those things we don’t think about until we don’t have it. Sadly, the way things are trending, that could be sooner rather than later. We are depleting our natural resources at an alarming rate. Fortunately, the use of smart grids powered by alternate forms of energy like wind, biofuels and solar could really help turn the tide on this growing problem. These creative solutions will ensure that the light comes on not only when we flip the switch but when future generations do as well.

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