By Abdul Aziz
Ever heard of a ‘smart grid’? Neither had I, until a few months ago. So, what is it? And perhaps more importantly, is there a need for it?
Globally, the rise of countries such as India and China is exacerbating the already high consumption of energy. The underlying reasons for this are threefold: first, an expanding global population (we’ve now surpassed the seven billion mark). Secondly, the rapid rate of urbanisation, a process of rural to urban migration that is particularly high in low-income countries. This matters because urban dwellers have a higher tendency to use energy-consuming luxuries. Thirdly, there is the peoples’ increasing affluence. Affluence is almost always accompanied by higher consumption; whereas during pre-affluence, people could make do with walking to work and washing dishes by hand. Post-affluence sees the same people driving to work and employing a dishwasher to wash the dishes. In fact, people start to use a host of energy-consuming luxuries, if it’s affordable. All this equates to higher energy consumption, largely generated from non-renewable energy sources. This status-quo highlights the need to develop innovative ways of countering the harms of non-renewable energy consumption. The smart grid is one such way.
A smart grid is the term given to a proposed revamped power grid. It still operates with the original cabling, but the key difference is that it makes use of real-time devices and meters, which provide communication between the power station and the end- user. This means that a house, for example, can tell the power station when it requires increased or decreased amounts of electricity. This enables the power station to respond by making an appropriate amount of power available to the house. This is in contrast to our current electricity grid system, which produces and makes available a uniform amount of energy to households and businesses at all times and has no relationship to customer demand. It’s a bit like allowing the water tap to run all day long, though householders might only need a fraction of the water coming out. The smart grid also allows households to sell surplus electricity back to the grid. Whilst our current system is reliable, it is highly inefficient. The smart grid plays its part in the war against climate change, not by using renewable sources of energy, but simply by being more efficient.
The smart grid works on the simple concept of optimum timing. It has to be said, the concept is not groundbreaking. In fact, Mercedes and other car manufacturers have developed automated systems whereby the driver can communicate with his or her car and tell it to heat up the inside before they get in. The heater turns on for only as long as necessary and then turns off automatically allowing the driver to get into a warm car. This can be pre-programmed or operated through a remote control. The idea underpinning both the car system and the smart grid are not that different: they both aim to provide the end-user with heat/energy on demand only, and no more or less than the demanded amount. So why has it taken so long for the smart grid to be touted?
Britain’s avant-garde status in the industrial revolution means that its infrastructure is generally antiquated. A modernisation programme requires a powerful political will and prudent fiscal management. Neither has been forthcoming. Meanwhile, exorbitant costs associated with green technology have curtailed access for ordinary people. Amidst all this, a crucial factor continues to be commercial viability. Simply put, vendors need to be able to sell a product or service for more than it costs to produce.
It is difficult to put a price on saving the environment. However, given that commercial viability to a large extent determines whether eco-technology is made available to the masses or not, you might be interested to learn that investment in smart grids is likely to total $80.3 billion between 2010 and 2020 at the European level. This figure does not represent a change of infrastructure, but rather the installation of new meters and devices in a bid to achieve greater efficiency. A perusal of the smart grid concept reveals that actually, nothing new is on offer. At best, supply of electricity is being regulated to match demand. Smart grids do not seek to change the end user’s behaviour, nor do they seek to use cleaner and more efficient fuels. Yet, if it is believed smart grids can benefit the environment enough to justify an $80 billion investment, just think how much more of an impact there could be if the masses actually changed their ways a little?
It has become clear in recent years that there is widespread recognition, both politically and non-politically, of the need to look after our environment. Where possible, we need to welcome positive change in as many ways as we can. This includes changing our mindsets, raising awareness, being pro-active about embracing change, and also, being prepared to part with cash to purchase that slightly more expensive eco-product, if it is affordable. Remember, the cost will be recovered over the life cycle of the product.
Oh, and for people of faith, they may take solace knowing that living an eco-friendly life is pleasing to God.
- On changing our mindsets: Muslim Green Guide (http://www.ifees.org.uk//Muslim_Green_Guide_Print_Final_V3.pdf)
- On raising awareness: Start by talking to friends and family about environmental issues and what can be done about it.
- On being pro-active about embracing change:
- On other eco-products: Look out for energy efficiency labels or ask the vendor when buying products. See the British Gas (http://www.britishgas.co.uk/products-and-services/energy-savers.html)
As with all transactions, don’t forget to check the check terms & conditions.
Abdul Aziz is a teacher of Geography in a London school. He is currently pursuing an MA in Geography Education. He also maintains his own blog about learning and teaching themed around Geography.
Picture Credits: Artwork by Rukia Begum
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