Ariel Schwartz

Energy 101: Where Does Our Power Come From?

by , 04/23/09

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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4 Comments

  1. cb736 June 28, 2009 at 5:59 pm

    Actually there is nothing different about using 100% renewable energy from the way we use the grid today, other than the fact that we have to use transmission lines and storage while with non-renewable energy they are not required to the same degree. What is needed is not a smart grid, but a smart consumer – and smart producers. There are already devices that sense load changes, due to the frequency change in the grid, and can shut down until the frequency recovers. The only difference between using non-renewable and renewable energy is that we need more storage, and more transmission, so that we can store energy for when we need it, and move it, through transmission lines, to where it can be used. We already use both, we just need to build more for when we switch over to 100% renewable. A smart grid is not needed.

  2. cb736 June 28, 2009 at 5:58 pm

    Actually there is nothing different about using 100% renewable energy from the way we use the grid today, other than the fact that we have to use transmission lines and storage while with none renewable energy they are not required to the same degree. What is needed is not a smart grid, but a smart consumer – and smart producers. There are already devices that sense load changes, due to the frequency change in the grid, and can shut down until the frequency recovers. The only difference between using non-renewable and renewable energy is that we need more storage, and more transmission, so that we can store energy for when we need it, and move it, through transmission lines, to where it can be used. We already use both, we just need to build more for when we switch over to 100% renewable. A smart grid is not needed.

  3. alexjameslowe April 24, 2009 at 6:08 pm

    I hope they can build the smart-grid system in short order. That seems like it’s one of a small group of technical hurdles that have to be overcome in order to have a true renewable energy economy. The others being cheap, efficient solar panels, and solid-state hydrogen storage. If we can get those ducks are in a row, we might be alright.

  4. jeanX April 24, 2009 at 2:08 pm

    I read it can only be used on edges of tectonic plates, a very narrow range.
    Geothermal power often requires drilling to great depths.
    Whereas geothermal hvac can be used just about anywhere.
    Only thing is, it’s very expensive.

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