With all the talk about modern smart grids and the call for increased transmission to deliver new renewable energy to consumers, eager to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, little attention is given to how antiquated and inefficient long-distance transmission is.
A March 2009, National Geographic article, citing the Energy Information Administration points out, ""for every kilowatt-hour used, 2.2 are "lost' as that energy is generated and sent over transmission lines."
It's hardly a sustainable business model. Centralized power production only works for the monopolized utilities because the ratepayer is compelled to pay for their inefficiency by the Public Utilities Commission. The centralized grid-delivery system is like taking the mountain to Mohammad -- except, as energy demands increase, the mountain keeps getting bigger and further and further away.
As promising as smart-grid technology seems, the primary goal is better load matching and therefore fewer wide-scale blackouts. The goal is not efficiency. Smart grids will be effective for managing over high wind events that have wind farms producing excess power and redirecting it elsewhere but it does nothing to reduce energy loss.
Today's central grid is based on Edison's 1882 Pearl Street Station in Manhattan, serving fewer than 500 customers. More than 100 years later, advancements in transmission technology have been mainly around stepping up voltage higher and higher to make the ever increasing distances required by building power plants out of sight of the urban centers.
Perhaps because the ratepayer picks up the tab for these losses, little has been done to reduce them and the resultant CO2 emissions. There is an enormous environmental footprint associated with thousands of miles of transmission lines hundreds, even thousands of feet wide.
Making the central grid "smarter" is perpetuating 19th century technology into a 21st century world.
Estimates of the cost to improve the central grid vary widely, with one suggesting $46 billion worldwide within the next five years. Investing just 10 percent of that money into developing utility scale clean storage technology would help eliminate the need for a central grid.
Producing power at the point of consumption and implementing wide-scale, distributed energy makes more and more sense -- environmentally and economically. Smart microgrids can employ multiple renewable technologies such as rooftop wind and solar without any of the losses associated with the centralized grid.
Practically, it is hard to imagine a technology that wastes 2.2 kilowatt-hours for every single kilowatt-hour produced is surviving into the 22nd century. Let's hope it doesn't; it simply isn't sustainable. We should be imagining that next century now -- one without a crisscross labyrinth of ugly transmission lines, one with thousands of independently functioning renewable energy microgrids.