How the Energy Grid Actually Works

national grid control center photoFully Charged/Video screen capture

As demonstrated by some reactions to this activist video defending Germany's massive solar growth, among the most common criticisms of renewable energy is that extreme variability of solar and wind places a strain on the electrical grid. From electric cars that talk to the grid to large-scale energy storage, many ideas have been touted as potential solutions that could help smooth out the peaks and troughs of supply and demand.

But how viable are these solutions in the real world?

A Behind the Scenes Look
Robert Llewellyn—whose Fully Charged show has expanded from electric car coverage into everything from farming the wind to the impact of smart meters on behavior—has decided to put his own renewables- and electric car-centric advocacy to the test by visiting the UK's National Grid control center and finding out how it all works. The result is a fascinating insight into a system that most of us take for granted.

Managing Supply and Demand
As Nigel Williams of the National Grid explains, in the end it all comes down to a constant dance between supply and demand, and the Grid serves as the interface which moves power from one place to another, attempts to manage demand, and makes decisions about what energy source to utilize and when. For those of us who get excited about predictions of 100% renewable energy, it's sobering to hear Williams explain that the shorter term goals of 20% renewables by 2020 is extremely ambitious, and that there are no viable large-scale energy storage solutions available right now.

Nevertheless, it's clear from Williams' explanations that solar, wind and other clean energy sources will only continue to grow, and the Grid will have to evolve to incorporate those sources. It's also clear that electric vehicles will play an increasingly important role—helping to level out supply and demand in the short term by using up off-peak energy at night—but increasing overall demand for electricity in the longer term.

Energy Conservation Must Be Top Priority
Whether or not the more ambitious clean energy goals that many of us tout will ever be achieved remains to be seen, but one thing that everyone should take away from this video is pretty simple—we stand much more chance of meeting our energy needs if we keep those energy needs in check. Nuclear advoactes and solar nuts alike should be able to agree that energy efficiency and conservation must be our number one priority. The folks managing our energy grids would most likely thank us for it.

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