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Teaching old grids new tricks.

WILL WE EVER BUILD an "intelligent" energy grid? With early tests proving that smart-grid systems can drastically reduce home electricity use, the rush is on to invest in this budding technology.

Our existing energy grid is an antiquated, clunky affair at best. Utilities basically act as "gatekeepers" that decide how and when power is distributed. A smart grid, however, negates the need for controlled distribution by giving homeowners the ability to monitor rates in real time, alter their use based on energy availability, need and price, and feed the grid alternative power to offset their costs.

The end result--a system maintained by everyone--is akin to the Internet. It saves its own energy and lowers greenhouse gas emissions as well. Estimates show that in the US, where the majority of smart-grid projections have been developed, the system could reduce carbon emissions by anywhere from 60 to 211 million tonnes per year. By drawing power from multiple sources, the smart grid would also be less susceptible to major disturbances such as the one that afflicted Ontario in 2003.

"The future for smart grid is enormous; it's the low hanging fruit," says Duncan Stewart, director of research for Deloitte Canada. He claims that beyond reducing our energy load and greenhouse gas emissions, the technology could be developed for a mere fraction of the cost of building traditional energy plants, such as nuclear. Stewart believes that smart-grid technologies may soon be one of our fastest growing sectors. "Many Canadian smart-grid companies are growing close to 100 per cent per year," says Stewart, "and that's in a recession."

Smart-grid success depends on several technological advances. The flow of power within the system must be digitally controlled and also merged with multiple communication devices so that monitoring is streamlined. Smart meters are an essential ingredient, since they can measure and control home energy use, while the major job will be to fully integrate multiple local power sources in order to fully connect the grid.

A properly functioning smart grid also requires open standards. Everyone needs to have access to the technologies that drive the system, just as html and other coding is universally available for Internet users. Newly founded companies, along with stalwarts such as Google and IBM, are now creating the cutting-edge technology that will make this happen. Lixar, an Ottawa-based software firm, has partnered with power companies for some of the first testing of multiple smart-grid elements used together, such as smart meters and monitoring software.

Smart meters are furthest along in the development process, with Ontario and BC rolling them out province-wide, and Quebec, Alberta and Nova Scotia close behind. Industry Canada has already reserved a wireless spectrum for utilities, similar to how a radio station holds a channel on airwaves, while other Canadian companies are building equipment that will function under harsh northern conditions, so that more hydro projects can link into the grid.

With a smart grid in place, Stewart says that consumers can expect to reduce their electricity use, and hence their energy bills, by up to 20 per cent. More importantly, reduced demand will delay or even eliminate the need for costly new plants. If all goes well, today's energy-efficiency hobbyists may be looking for new areas to "green" in about 20 years.

Laura D'Amelio is a Toronto-based freelance writer focusing on environmental issues.
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Author:D'Amelio, Laura
Publication:Alternatives Journal
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Dec 15, 2009
Words:556
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