Smart grids line up in fight against climate change
Smart grids are increasingly seen as a crucial weapon in the world's fight against climate change, with the EU among those rallying behind the new technology.
With global energy consumption set to rise dramatically over the next fifteen years, not least as an additional 350 million Chinese citizens move into cities, the need to use electricity more efficiently has never been higher, say industry experts.
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"Smart grids are a lot about empowering us to engage with energy," says Scott Lang, CEO of SilverSpring Networks, a California-based company leading the way in developing technology that allows customers to view their electricity usage at any given point, including from individual appliances.
While this enables households to cut bills by using energy-consuming devices at low-rate times of day, it also enables utility companies to cut peak-time demand and avoid costly blackouts.
The need for a better alignment between supply and demand is also being driven by renewable energies and the forecast rise in plug-in electric cars, already in evidence on the roads around Silicon Valley.
"While [American inventor] Thomas Edison's model was very successful at creating centralised power stations a hundred years ago, we still haven't cracked the code on storing electricity," said Mr Lang, whose company seeks to link households and utility companies via a web of external wireless devices, smart meters and software.
During one pilot study using the technology in Oklahoma, electricity customers cut peak usage by 20 percent and made average monthly savings of $37.
The system's reliance on internet technology has sparked fears of hacking and data abuse, but governments around the world appear to be jumping on board.
"Smart grid technologies are needed to allow for a cost-effective evolution towards a decarbonised power system," declared European Commission proposals published on Wednesday (17 November) as part of the bloc's 2020 energy plan.
"[They allow] for the management of vast amounts of renewable on-shore and off-shore energy, while maintaining availability for conventional power generation and power system adequacy," continued the document.
Austria, Belgium, France, Denmark, Germany, Finland, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden, Spain and the UK are member states where smart grid projects are already underway.
With so much interest, it is little wonder that IT giant Google is investing in the new technology, recently developing its own Google Power Meter - a free software programme which allows electricity users to monitor their real-time energy use.
The programme is only available to households whose electricity provider has an agreement with Google, currently only First Utility (UK) and Yello Strom (Germany) in Europe.
But there are plans for expansion.
"Today we have about a dozen utility partners around the world and we are looking at how to grow this space and grow the whole ecosystem," said Google energy czar Bill Weihl.