Today we’re excited to announce the launch of our new Energy 101 series, in which we’ll be exploring the future-forward technologies that stand to upgrade our grids, reduce our energy footprint, and slow the speed of global warming. Unless you have been living in a cave for the past few years, you’ve probably heard terms like “energy conservation”, “off-grid energy“, and “smart grid” tossed around. But before getting into the nitty-gritty of transitioning to renewable energy, we should stop and examine where exactly our power comes from now.

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Unless you derive all your power from on-site renewable energy sources like solar panels or wind turbines, chances are that you’re connected to the power grid, a vast network that delivers electricity from suppliers to consumers. Right now, most energy on the grid comes from generating plants. These plants still usually get power from traditional sources like coal, nuclear, and hydroelectric dams. But as concerns over carbon emissions, safety, and long term sustainability of these sources grow, electrical utilities have begun to switch over to renewable energy sources.

Renewable power is derived from sources that can be replenished, like the sun, wind, rain, and geothermal heat. These power sources are gaining ground quickly, with wind growing at an annual worldwide rate of 30%. New solar projects are also being announced every day–Exelon’s planned 10 megawatt plant, just unveiled this week, will be the largest solar plant in the country if completed.

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There’s just one problem with these natural sources of power: they’re intermittent. Solar power (gathered from solar panels) is only produced during the day, and wind power (gathered from turbines) only works if there’s wind to go around. At low levels, these intermittent sources can be used to back up traditional sources during peak hours of energy use. But at higher levels, grid energy needs to be available; once the majority of our power comes from these sources, they need to be available at all times.

That’s where the smart grid comes in. A smart grid delivers electricity using digital technology that tracks power usage with smart meters and adjusts prices depending on the load or availability of sources like solar and wind power. Power meters currently have to manually read, but smart meters wirelessly send power use information to utilities instantly. In theory, this will make intermittent energy sources more viable — if the price of energy increases during times of low availability, consumers will be more likely to adjust energy use accordingly. Smart meters have already been installed in millions of homes in Northern California. The peak pricing program is voluntary right now, but it will become standard within five years.

Now that you’ve got the basics of energy use down, stay tuned next week when we explore the smart grid in more detail.

+ U.S. Department of Energy

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