Kilowatt hour electric meters

We have an energy challenge in the United States — actually, a number of energy challenges.

  1. The American electricity grid is over 100 years old, and the cost to replace it is an estimated $4.8 trillion.
  2. It costs $750 per person annually to deliver energy through the current grid, and the cost keeps rising.
  3. New technologies that require quick charging (e.g., electric cars) pose the risk of crashing the grid and causing blackouts.
  4. The newest wave of warfare includes cyber attacks on power grids, including an alleged attempt by Russia earlier this year.

So how does America address an old, expensive system that’s prone to failure and attacks yet is essential to many aspects of our daily lives? The answer is actually an eco-friendly one.

A Smart Solution

The current U.S. electricity grid is a one-way design, where power plants send electricity to homes and office buildings. At times when homes consume more energy (usually late afternoon and early evening), additional electricity must be generated and pushed to the users at the edge of the grid, which increases costs.

Instead of replacing the current grid, what if we make the existing one better? The U.S. Department of Energy is currently in the process of implementing a smart grid, adopted under the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. This smart grid incorporates three main parts:

  1. Two-way transmission with digital communication controls, so electricity can go both ways and consumers can provide power into the grid through renewable energy sources like solar panels
  2. Smart meter and advanced technology in appliances and thermostats to optimize the times when buildings use the most electricity
  3. Better distribution and re-routing of electricity by operation centers to prevent outages during bad weather

The smart grid will reduce reliance on power plants that were built decades ago and dirty fossil fuels as a primary energy source.

Addressing the Challenges

The U.S. has already invested over $30 billion in the smart grid, and it’s not expected to be complete until 2030.

The smart grid is not without its challenges, too. When Boulder, Colorado, implemented a smart grid nearly 10 years ago through Xcel Energy, the project ran into cost overruns and insufficient consumer education that led to the city taking over control from Xcel. A ballot measure to continue funding the project barely passed last year.

Cost is just one factor when it comes to the smart grid. Another concern is how the U.S. will generate enough renewable energy to power the grid. The market for solar panels dropped by 30 percent in 2017, as tax incentives dropped and the government enforced tariffs on solar panels manufactured outside the U.S.

Smart appliances are also more prone to cyberattacks because they connect via the internet. If consumers are not clever with their router passwords, the risk of hackers accessing the grid via two-way communication increases.

Since most of the costs of a new grid will be passed to consumers via increased energy bills, be prepared to adjust your budgets accordingly. You may also want to consider investing in solar technology for your home to offset the need to connect to and use the grid 24/7.

By Trey Granger

Trey Granger is a former senior waste stream analyst for Earth911.