The accelerating change of technology we use commercially and personally is dramatically increasing the global demand for electric power.
As consumers, we’re gulping power at an alarming rate, from air conditioning systems, heating systems, household appliances, and all forms of home entertainment devices to cloud computing, computers, and consumer electronics. Over the past few years, we’re also plugging in electric vehicles at an ever increasing rate. And let’s not forget the industrial power needed to churn out all these products, as well as keep the other wheels of industry turning. In fact, global electricity demand has been projected to nearly double from the year 2010 to 2030.
It’s clear we’re already close to consuming more electricity than we can generate or distribute, as manifest through the rolling black and brown outs frequently seen during summer months where peak power demand is highest. The problem is we’re adding more demand for electricity (from everything mentioned above and more) than we’re adding capacity to supply it. With that said, we still need to stay cool and to turn on lights to see at night … and we’re certainly not going to turn off our home theater and gaming systems.
So what’s the answer? Expand power generation to meet growing demand? Not so fast. Investment in electric power generation and distribution is a slow, long-term proposition, and therefore has trailed well below the increase in GDP in most developed countries. In other words, no one has the appetite (or the capital) to build enough power plants and expand the grid to meet the rising demand for electricity.
A quick point of fact: Power generation—and the grid to distribute it—has to be scaled to meet peak demand. On average, power grids operate at around 80 percent capacity, so they’re ready to cover peak demand when those hot summer days roll around. If demand rises above that peak capacity, we experience those black and brown outs.
Additionally, 75 percent of the electricity generating capacity in the United States depends on the combustion of fossil fuels. This raises a multitude of other concerns, perhaps foremost that dependence on fossil fuels for electricity is causing severe environmental and health hazards, including large emissions of toxic air pollutants and greenhouse gases.
Over the past few years, thanks to technology developments such as fracking, which were impossible just a decade ago, we can now extract natural gas in very large quantities, and that has put the United States in a position of being an exporter of energy. The good news is that natural gas is far less polluting than other fossil fuels, such as coal, and the U.S. has very large reserves. On the other hand, the United States does not have an infrastructure for capitalizing on natural gas powered vehicles, and natural gas is a fossil fuel and does have harmful emissions, even if less than the others.
When we look at renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, and waves, great strides have been taken, but until we find a way to store electricity for use at a later time, these will help but not be game changing. The good news here is that there is a technology that is already changing the game.
What if we could increase energy production without adding new capacity? What if we could use the power we already generate more efficiently, rather than have to dramatically expand power generation? Enter the work that is being done to enable smart grids, smart homes, and smart cities to help us accomplish this. But will peak power demand modeling and technology that turns lights off in empty rooms be enough? Probably not for some time. That’s where promising energy storage technology comes in as a key change accelerator to help us use the electrical power we have now more efficiently.
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