The electric energy sector is the largest contributor of greenhouse gases. Forty percent of carbon dioxide emissions come from the generation of electric power, more than cars, or any other single source. This little known fact deserves much greater discussion and understanding. While building alternative energy plants and asking people to be more aware of their usage are important steps, they are only a beginning.
The technology already exists to radically reduce CO2 emissions, without building new power plants, and without asking consumers to make significant changes in their usage behavior. So why does the power system operate largely the same way it did 60 years ago?
The answer is that unfortunately, there is a lack of the kind of leadership that can ensure we implement the needed upgrades that could take our electrical grid system into the 21st century. Despite a strong public desire to make energy usage more efficient, affordable and environmentally responsible, those who have the ability to make this happen have been dragging their feet.
The energy sector is in dire need of visionary thought and action if we are to meet the world’s increasing needs for energy, all the while being mindful of climate change risks. We must avoid building unnecessary and/or "dirty" power plants, thus further damaging our planet and wasting our resources. Rather, we need to address the problem at its source, the grid system and the efficient use of energy in buildings and homes.
Imagine that your energy provider had the ability to easily identify when and where the power grid was overloaded and immediately rebalance the system, so that it continued to hum along at its maximum efficiency. And further imagine that every time you turned out a light when exiting a room, your utility rewarded you for it. With technology that exists today, we could control all the networking components in our buildings and homes—security systems, electricity, wireless Internet, and phones—from a single screen. We can even access the system remotely. For example, we could turn off the light in the entryway from our phone, or turn on the alarm from our keyboard at work. In short, our homes and offices could be far more energy efficient, without our having to change anything we do or sacrifice our comfort.
Even more to the point, the grid itself could be operating at far greater efficiency, in light of the new technologies being developed by several green technology companies. This change could be realized without installing new power lines, building new power plants or changing much of anything about the current make-up of the system. Blackouts from over-congestion in the power grid could become a thing of the past: a story we tell our grandchildren about the not-so-old days before the system was upgraded to run in such a way that it was no longer prone to unnecessary disruption.
Consider for a moment how much computers have changed over the last thirty years. The same is true in virtually every major technology-based market, be it telecommunications, building and construction, and even the automotive industry. Each has evolved to meet environmental challenges and societal changes. It is past the time for the energy industry to do the same.
Since its initial development in the early 20th century, the energy industry has not taken any significant steps towards improving the way power is managed and delivered. While solar and other alternative energy sources have made progress in the way energy is created, simply pushing new energy sources onto an already congested and poorly managed grid will only complicate the problem.
Global demand for energy, especially with the surging economies of China and India, is expected to increase by as much as 60 percent over the next 20 years. Action can and must be taken now by those in charge to lower greenhouse gas emissions, slow human causes of global warming and prevent energy crises such as blackouts and their related financial calamities.
There is an abundance of new and developing technology—not to mention investment capital—that is or soon will be available to help the energy industry make advances in the way they manage and deliver power. One example is Optimal Technologies (for which I am a Director), whose entire goal is to make power generation, transmission, distribution and consumption more environmentally responsible, reliable, secure and cost efficient. Another is Local Power, which is working to drastically change the energy market by putting cities in charge of their own energy future in a model called Community Choice Aggregation, which has already been adopted by the City of San Francisco. Hundreds of millions of dollars have already gone into developing new ways of improving our energy eco-system and now is the time for us to really start taking advantage of all the promise inherent in these new technologies.
All of us, as part of the global society, need to force the issue further and faster and demand that politicians and energy leaders take serious and immediate action to improve the power system. It is imperative that those who are making the tough decisions within the energy industry get on board.
WINSTON HICKOX recently served as the Chair of the California Market Advisory Committee to support the implementation of the state’s first-in-the-nation comprehensive greenhouse gas reduction program. Hickox is former Secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency. As Secretary of Cal/EPA, Hickox was instrumental in the enactment of legislation requiring new greenhouse gas emission standards for cars. He also established the Environmental Protection Indicators for California, and led the implementation of Environmental Justice legislation in California.