Climate Compass Blog

Smart Grid Boosts Efficiency, Renewables, and Reliability

The smart grid is a hot topic these days. President Obama touted the smart grid during his campaign and continues to be a booster. The 2009 stimulus bill (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, ARRA) provided nearly $4.5 billion to the Department of Energy (DOE) for smart grid investments. In October, DOE made $3.4 billion in awards under the Smart Grid Investment Grant Program, and, in November, DOE announced awards totaling $620 million as part of the Smart Grid Regional and Energy Storage Demonstration Project.

Last month, we added a smart grid factsheet to its Climate Techbook. While it’s not easy to give a short definition of the smart grid, one can think of it as the application of digital technology to the electric power sector to improve reliability, reduce cost, and increase efficiency. Smart grid technologies—including communication networks, advanced sensors, and monitoring devices—provide new ways for utilities to generate and deliver power and for consumers to understand and control their electricity consumption.

The smart grid has several anticipated benefits unrelated to climate change, such as improving electricity reliability (e.g., fewer power outages) and reducing utilities’ operating costs (e.g., by eliminating meter reading). Much of the buzz around the smart grid, however, has to do with the ways that smart grid technology can facilitate greenhouse gas emission reductions.

Efficiency, renewables, and  plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) are three of the primary climate solutions the smart grid can enable. Initial evidence suggests that giving consumers direct feedback on their electricity use via smart meters and associated display devices can by itself lead to energy savings of 5-15 percent. One of the challenges that will become increasingly important as the United States relies more on renewable electricity from wind and solar power is that these resources are variable (i.e., they only generate electricity when the wind blows or the sun shines) rather than schedulable like traditional fossil fuel power plants. Smart grid technology makes it easier to add energy storage to the grid and to exploit demand response (e.g., cycling air conditioners on and off) to more easily balance electricity supply and demand as output from variable renewables fluctuates. Finally, smart grid technology would facilitate charging PHEVs during periods of low electricity demand (when generating costs are lowest and existing capacity is underutilized) so that PHEV charging can be done most cost-effectively.

Achieving greenhouse gas emission reductions at the lowest cost will require deploying a portfolio of energy efficiency measures and low-carbon energy technologies, several of which can build upon smart grid technology.

Steve Caldwell is a Technology and Policy Fellow

One Less Excuse to Avoid Acting

Only time will tell whether the deal struck in Copenhagen proves a true turning point in the effort against climate change.  Flying home after two chaotic and exhausting weeks, I find I’m of two minds.  

The deadline of December 18, 2009, in fact drove many governments further than before.  In the weeks preceding, the United States, China, India and others felt compelled to come forward with explicit emission pledges.  Under the Copenhagen Accord, countries have until January 31 to put these numbers on record; then there is no taking them back. 

These pledges are not binding.  They are statements of intent, not obligation.  But that is not what disappoints me.  I never expected Copenhagen to produce more than a political accord.

What troubles me is that governments did not resolve to move next to a legally binding treaty.  That goal was part of the tentative agreement announced by President Obama.  But then he left, and in final deal-making, it somehow vanished.  The negotiations will of course continue.  Governments agreed they’d meet next year in Mexico, the year after in South Africa.  But with what type of agreement in mind?  That’s unclear.

Black Carbon and Climate

Today, the Obama Administration has formally recognized the importance of black carbon as a component of broader policies to address climate change. At the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Nancy Sutley, the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, announced an initiative aimed at reducing emissions of black carbon. The United States is committing $5 million towards international cooperation to reduce black carbon emissions in and around the Arctic. According to Chair Sutley, the new initiative will include investments to study the effects of black carbon, demonstrate options for reducing emissions, and begin to quantify both the climate and public health benefits of reducing emissions. The initiative will focus on diesel engines (both on-road and non-road, including those used for port operations), older district heating and industrial facilities, and agricultural and forest fires.

We just released a new white paper highlighting the climate impacts of black carbon (Black Carbon: A Science/Policy Primer). Over the last decade, a growing body of evidence indicates that soot and smoke are major contributors to climate change. Black carbon, a component of soot, warms the air by absorbing sunlight in the atmosphere, changes rainfall patterns and, when deposited on snow and ice, accelerates melting. Black carbon is produced by both natural processes and human activity from the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, biofuels, and biomass. Primary sources include diesel engines, small industrial sources, residential coal and solid biofuels for cooking and heating, and agricultural and forest fires.

The new paper summarizes current knowledge on the climate effects of soot components (black carbon and organic particles) and identifies emission sources and technologies to mitigate their impacts. It also presents perspectives on the potential role of soot mitigation approaches in developing more comprehensive climate strategies.

Black carbon remains in the atmosphere for only days to weeks, meaning it has strong regional climate effects. Recent studies suggest that black carbon may be responsible for 30-50 percent of recent warming in the Arctic, contributing to the acceleration of Arctic sea ice melting. Loss of Arctic sea ice is one potential “tipping point” that could lead to rapid warming and irreversible climate change. Black carbon is also driving increased melting of the glaciers in the Himalayan Plateau, upon which some 40 percent of the world’s population depends for fresh water. Reductions in black carbon would help address these issues and also would have many co-benefits, particularly in public health and especially in the developing world.

Controlling emissions of CO2 and long-lived greenhouse gases must remain the centerpiece of policies to address climate change, since they ultimately drive the Earth’s temperature in the long term. However, reducing black carbon emissions represents a win-win scenario: it would have an immediate cooling effect on the Earth’s climate, potentially delaying temperature increases in the short run and helping reduce the risk of irreversible tipping points in the climate system, and it would reduce air pollution, significantly improving public health.

Jeremy Richardson is Senior Fellow for Science Policy

Will the House Climate Bill Protect U.S. Competitiveness?

Yes, according to a recent government report examining the impacts of the House-passed climate bill.

An important concern in any climate legislation is the negative impact it might have on domestic energy-intensive producers that compete in global markets.  Climate policy can raise the production costs of U.S. manufacturers relative to their unregulated foreign competitors, and as a result production and emissions could shift overseas.  Responding to a request by five Democratic senators, the Obama administration recently released an interagency report on the competitiveness impacts of the climate bill that passed the House in June.  It finds that most U.S. energy-intensive, trade-exposed industries (EITEs) will experience only small increases in their production costs.  As a result, emissions "leakage" to countries that do not adopt climate policies will be minimal. 

Washington Should Note the Success of the Other Washington

COPENHAGEN - Governor Chris Gregoire made a presentation about the successes of Washington state in building a clean energy economy at an official COP 15 side event hosted by us and the World Business Council on Sustainable Development.  A packed room listened to how the experience of the Washington out West should provide insight for national policymakers of the Washington in the East.

She detailed how, given an appropriate state policy framework, the private sector has made significant innovations in technology, making Washington a national leader in solar manufacturing and the state with the 5th most wind energy production. All of this development occurred despite the fact that the state does not have large wind or solar energy resources.  The lesson here is that the innovativeness and drive of American business should never be underestimated, and there is nationwide potential for growth in a clean energy technology.  New and existing American companies will find ways to flourish given the right incentives.

The Governor also spoke about states leading the way in implementing cap-and-trade programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.    She pointed out that a multistate and multi-Canadian province effort, the Western Climate Initiative, is underway to enact a cap-and-trade program covering 20% of the US economy - despite the delays in development of a national program.  The WCI is the not the only state-level effort underway, with the Midwestern Greenhouse Reduction Accord signed in 2007.  Both of these efforts follow on the heels of an ongoing cap-and-trade program in the Northeast, which, as Gregoire pointed out, has proven that cap-and-trade programs can tackle greenhouse gas emissions without damaging the American economy – an important piece of empirical evidence as the nation and the world look towards developing emissions-reduction policy.

Of course, the government cannot do it alone.  The people in Washington state have a commitment to technology, whether it’s aerospace, software, clean energy, or coffee.  Now its time for legislators in Washington, DC to show the same commitment to technology promotion and emission reduction.

Michael Tubman is the Congressional Affairs Fellow