A widespread blackout affecting 55 million people across the Northeast and parts of Canada nine years ago, another leaving 620 million people in India without power just this week. Both of these happened in August when temperatures were high and both could have been prevented with clean technology.
As temperatures keep hitting record highs around the world, more people will be turning to air conditioning to stay cool. Those surges in energy demand will lead to more burning of fossil fuels and more grid failures, but renewable energy and smart grid technologies could reduce both and let us cool down with less of an impact.
Here are some of the different clean tech solutions that will let us beat the heat without crippling the grid.
Residential Solar and Other Distributed Power Sources
The best way to cool the planet's population without increasing fossil fuel consumption is to use renewable energy instead. Distributed smaller-scale solar power or other renewable power sources instead of large power plants have the added benefit of being better guarded against major grid power failures because the trip from source to consumer is a short one. In the case of residential solar panels, the clean power is generated and used right at home. If a transmission failure happens in one place, it won't take down an entire city or region like in the case of large centralized power plants.
While currently large solar arrays can churn out a significant amount of clean energy compared to a bunch of residential solar panels, breakthroughs in solar technology are making it so more and more energy can be generated in less space meaning small-scale solar power will soon be able to pack a lot bigger punch.
For instance, MIT recently built 3-D tower configurations of solar panels that could generate 20 times as much energy as flat ones over the same base area. A double-sided solar design by BSolar that captures direct sunlight on the top and reflected light on the backside could generate up to 50 percent more energy than traditional panels and there are advances in transparent solar cells that could lead to solar panel windows, so that buildings are generating energy from all angles.
Home Energy Management
One of the easiest ways to reduce our energy consumption and ease the demand on our power grids is to use energy more efficiently at home. Home energy management systems and smart thermostats empower us with energy use information and ways to shave off kilowatts even while pumping the A/C occasionally.
Most of us don't fully understand exactly how much energy we're using and which devices in our home are being hogs. Energy management systems let users see real-time detailed reports of their energy use so that any energy-wasting patterns emerge. Users can make changes to their behavior to cut consumption once they know what that consumption is and many allow remote monitoring and control.
Smart thermostats and other smart home controls can do a lot of the work for you. The Nest Learning Thermostat actually learns your heating and cooling preferences so that it automatically turns the thermostat up when you leave for work and back down at the time you normally get home, meaning you'll never forget to do it and end up wasting hours of energy. Many other smart thermostats let you schedule changes in heating and cooling temperatures and control and monitor your energy use remotely.
There's even a new type of dimmable LED bulb lets you schedule and control your home's lighting from your smart phone. All of these home energy management solutions will let people use air conditioning in a more efficient and informed way.
Probably the most important solution to grid-crashing heat waves is the deployment of smart grid technologies. Everything from smart meters to automated demand response controls will make for a more efficient and resilient electrical grid.
Smart meters allow utilities to collect energy use information from consumers in real time over WiFi instead of sending out periodic meter readers. This instant delivery of information lets utilities see a clearer picture of how energy is used in their area. This allows them to respond to surges in demand more quickly and balance out power loads more efficiently. That means getting the right amount of power from all sources both conventional and renewable at the right times. This can lead to less grid failures and when they do happen, utilities can respond right away because outages are immediately communicated.
Though there has been some push-back from groups with health and privacy concerns related to the new meters, the roll-out of smart meters has luckily kept moving forward.
After utilities collect all that information, the next step is to use smart controls like automated demand response systems to balance the supply and demand of electricity. These systems let utilities automatically shave off demand if a surge in power use starts to outpace supply. Electricity consumers can voluntarily sign up for these programs that let utilities remotely control their thermostats or other power loads during peak demand times, which could eliminate grid failures from demand surges and, even better, eliminate the need for stand-by fossil fuel power plants to meet that demand.
Another approach would be that utilities use demand response programs to communicate to consumers when they need to reduce their power loads, like delaying running the dishwasher until later or turning up their own thermostat to reduce power demand.
Large-Scale Energy Storage
Another component that, couple with distributed renewable power and smart grid systems, could allow us to draw more energy for cooling without increasing our impact or putting too much demand on the grid, is large-scale energy storage. A few companies like Xtreme Power, GE and Siemens are developing large-scale battery systems that can be linked to renewable energy sources like wind farms or solar arrays to act as back-up power for when renewable energy is inconsistent or when demand on the grid goes up.
The systems store excess energy from renewable or conventional sources when demand is low to be tapped later when its needed. Not only does this better integrate renewable energy sources into the grid because it can keep the flow of electricity more constant, but even when used to back up conventional power plants, these big batteries can eliminate the need to build or utilize additional coal-burning power plants.
These battery systems let us rely more heavily on renewable energy letting us cool off with cleaner electricity and smooth out power delivery, which can keep the grid from going down when our air conditioning gets cranked up.
An idea that combines all of these clean technologies into one is the microgrid. Microgrids are free-standing grids that exist free from larger power grids that generate their own renewable energy, typically use large-scale battery storage for back-up power and energy management controls to monitor it all. They can be communities, data center or office complexes or any other arrangement of power consumers.
The beauty of a microgrid is that it is self-contained and since power is generated on-site or close by, there's no need for complex transmission systems and the risk of failure they carry. Balance of energy demand and supply is easier because you're dealing with a smaller group of power consumers and with integrated power storage, renewable energy can easily cover the bulk or even all of the electricity needs.
The ideal microgrid might be a community where all building are outfitted with solar panels and it gets the bulk of its energy needs from a nearby larger solar array or wind farm. Battery storage systems store excess energy to use when it's needed and energy management and demand response systems help everyone to use power most efficiently. It's connected to the main grid as a back-up measure, but in the event of a failure of the main grid, it can close off that connection and continue to operate as an island.
This idea isn't really that far off and some examples of it already exist. It could be especially useful for remote villages that don't have easy access to larger power grids and allow them to run entirely on renewable energy.
Clean Tech to the Rescue
While there are a variety of ways to keep cool without turning your A/C down to freezing, from smart design and fashion to taking naps during the hottest part of the day and coming up with ways to cook without turning on the oven, clean technologies can help us to stay comfortable in a warming world without adding to the environmental impact and keeping our grid running like a smart machine at the same time.