Connecting The Dots Between The Smart Grid And Sustainability

Editor’s Note: EarthTechling is proud to repost this article courtesy of Natural Resources Defense Council. Author credit goes to Samir Succar.

In a new issue brief, NRDC addresses the environmental benefits of grid modernization and discusses the role of smart grid technologies in enabling a transition to a sustainable energy future. One central message of this new publication, “The Promise of the Smart Grid: Goals, Policies, and Measurement Must Support Sustainability Benefits” is that smart grid technologies provide an enabling platform that offers many potential benefits but that well-designed programs and careful implementation will be required to ensure those benefits are realized.

Can smart grid technologies help reduce carbon emissions?

The emissions benefits of the smart grid are difficult to quantify because the answer depends on how enabling technologies function within the system. Estimates in the literature (see figure from NRDC’s issue brief below) vary both in magnitude and in source of emission abatement: electric vehicles displacing oil consumption, price transparency stimulating conservation, enhanced energy efficiency reducing energy consumption, or renewable energy displacing conventional fuels through increased system flexibility.


These sources of carbon abatement can all contribute to the benefits that smart grid technologies deliver, but without careful program design and without well elaborated metrics for success, we risk leaving these benefits on the table.

If one goal of smart grid deployment is to use demand side flexibility to facilitate faster deployment and cheaper integration of variable resources like wind and solar, the metrics that evaluate smart grid program success should be designed around those outcomes: grid flexibilityvariable resource capacity value or the carbon intensity of electricity delivered to customers. Failing to do so would risk forfeiting the potential benefits of smart grid deployment, for example through uncoordinated planning or deployment of infrastructure that lacks the capability to provide flexibility on the relevant timescales.

It’s not enough to count the number of meters installed or to simply measure peak load reductions as a way of gauging program success. Metrics must be aligned with desired outcomes and smart grid deployment programs should be integrated with energy efficiency and renewable energy programs and targets. Only by drawing these links and making them explicit can the environmental benefits of the smart grid be realized.

For more on smart grid technologies and their role in delivering environmental benefits, see NRDC’s Issue Brief, “The Promise of the Smart Grid: Goals, Policies, and Measurement Must Support Sustainability Benefits

NRDC is the nation's most effective environmental action group, combining the grassroots power of 1.3 million members and online activists with the courtroom clout and expertise of more than 350 lawyers, scientists and other professionals.