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Why we need a smarter grid
By National Geographic Maps  |  Published December 15, 2011
Much of the world's grid infrastructure is outdated and less efficient than it could be. A smart grid is more powerful and better able to handle renewable energy.

At 3:59 am on November 8, 2009, Spain’s renewable energy control center registered a milestone: For a gusty moment, more than half of Spain was powered by wind.

The brief spike was cause for celebration. Powering the world using nothing but renewable energy is often seen as a naïve dream, despite the urgent need to reduce the amount of CO2-emitting power plants and tailpipes in the world. The fact that in 2010 a major European country like Spain drew 35 percent of its power from renewables is a sign that this dream could be a reality one day soon.

But it also highlighted a big problem: Spain’s power grid isn’t connected to the rest of Europe. When it was flooded with wind power early that November morning, authorities had nowhere to send the excess. So technicians had to shut off windmills to avoid overloading the country’s electricity grid.

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“That means a loss of profits,” says Alberto Cena, a lobbyist for the Spanish wind industry. “We are suffering for our success.”

Spain’s pain may soon be shared by the rest of Europe, and by renewable energy providers in the U.S. with no way to get their green electricity where it’s most needed. Even as twirling windmills and glittering solar panels spread, encouraged by subsidies for renewable energy in the U.S. and a promise that 20 percent of the European Union’s energy will come from renewables by 2020, there’s a growing realization that our existing electricity infrastructure isn’t up to the job.

Facilitating renewables

When it comes to renewable energy, there are two basic problems: supply and transport. Unlike traditional nuclear or coal power plants, which deliver predictable, steady streams of electricity to houses and factories, wind, solar and hydro power depend on weather, which can be fickle and unpredictable. That means supplies can dip too low at crucial times or soar too high, sending excess electricity into a carefully calibrated power grid.

And renewable energy supplies are often located far from the cities and factories where electricity is needed most. The wind whistling across the wide-open plains of just three U.S. states – North Dakota, Kansas, and Texas -- could power the entire nation. But without massive investments in new high-voltage power lines to move electricity from the Great Plains to the heavily populated coasts, windmills are useless.

The problem is that our electrical grids are relics, dating back a century. In the U.S., power supplies are still local affairs, supplying nearby cities or at best patching into rickety local networks that cover a few states. In Europe, the picture is further complicated by national borders, which require reconciling the competing and conflicting regulations of dozens of different countries.

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If renewable energy sources are going to be a part of our electricity supply, the grid needs a wholesale overhaul. While discussions about the smart grid often focus on smart meters in private homes and other micro-fixes, the most important investments will be massive, on the scale of the interstate highway system that changed the face of America a half century ago.

Planners are focusing on making power grids larger and more interconnected, to make sure that excess power can be moved where it’s needed easily and efficiently. That’s important because larger networks equal more stable energy supplies – and a higher percentage of renewables.

“If you have a large area, the wind is always blowing somewhere,” says Paul Wilczek of the European Wind Energy Association. “If we’re able to combine wind farms over a large area, output is pretty flat.”

As it stands, Europe’s grid can’t manage it all – and isn’t yet ready for the thousands of windmills nine countries plan to install in the stormy North Sea, let alone pie-in-the-sky plans like filling the Sahara with solar panels.

Getting it done

Big decisions need to be made now if we have any intention of getting improved grids in place in the next decade. In Europe, regulators hope to add more than 25,000 miles of power lines -- a quarter of them long-distance, high-voltage wires to move electricity from coastal regions deep inland – by 2020. It’s a tremendous task. “Short term in grid planning is not really short,” Wilczek says. “This is infrastructure that’s going to be there for 50 years, so you don’t put it in fast.”

Like a river, electricity flows indiscriminately whether or not customers are using their power at any given moment. Right now, any thing that’s not used is simply wasted, making up-to-the-second data provided by smart meters valuable to energy companies looking to fine-tune their output.

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And in the long term, a steady energy supply will also require ways to store energy produced during off-peak hours, when supply is high but demand is low. Pilot projects to smooth out supply and demand using smart meters, batteries, water pumps, hydrogen fuel cells and even warehouses full of frozen fish are already in place. Electric cars, like the Nissan Leaf or Chevy Volt, are another way to store energy, by charging the car batteries using electricity produced during off-peak hours.

Improving the world’s electricity infrastructure isn’t sexy, but it’s vital. When the lights still go at the flick of a switch half a century from now, we’ll be glad we took the leap.

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