Energy storage devices will be the key for residential smart grids, but so will new energy efficient appliances.
Last week my wife and I were having drinks with friends after a show, and I came to realize the problems that extending a smart grid into the home would bring. First is cost. Even with incentives and creative programs to pay for such features, people cannot get their heads around the initial cost. Sure I can say that the system will pay for itself, but then I have to be honest. Solar panels are said to pay for themselves in fifteen to twenty years. The new LED bulbs which cover the RAGB spectrum will pay for themselves in five years (these are like $90 per bulb). The upside is LED bulbs last many times longer than a regular bulb and a CFL, and you can have power to your home when needed with a solar panel.
We do not think in terms of years when saving money; we want instant gratification. This is a difficult hurdle for most people to leap over. I think as builders go more green with the new homes being produced, and the consumer begins to focus on the long view with their finances, which may be a consequence of this current recession, we may find the cost factor as negligible. There are other problems though, which may be less obvious to most consumers. Efficiency of the appliances in your home, and finding ways to store energy in your home come to mind as real concerns.
Afew months ago, I would have told you fuel cells are impractical for residential use. Ask me today, I would be hesitant to make such a strong assertion. This is partly due to family pride. A patent was awarded where my father is listed as an inventor for a process which makes fuel cells much more efficient. Looking at the film technology from DuPont indicates to me that this is improving too. Take a look around the business world to see that nano-tech is advancing quite well. If there really turns out to be a push in many communities for a smart grid, residential/commercial real estate use of fuel cells can be seen as a good business option. This would lead to furthering developing this technology, since profits could be great. (Fuel cells have a limited market at this time, so there is no financial incentive to increase production- with its use in electric vehicles and buildings, manufacturers would have an incentive to bring costs down). We still could be ten years out before we see this used as a common home energy storage device though.
Fuel cells use hydrogen to produce electricity. The by-product of the electricity production is water. There could be other devices developed to store energy for home use. Energy is used to separate the hydrogen from oxygen in water. The hydrogen is used to produce electricity and water. That water could be reused to create electricity. In this scenario, the solar panel could create electricity for the hydrogen separation. I know different ideas are flowing around about hydrogen use, but I have not seen or found a firm working along these lines. Maybe the amount energy needed to create hydrogen is less than the amount of energy produced by that hydrogen in a significant amount.
Using water to store energy is already being done. A few weeks back, I read about a firm in the US which has an elegant solution to cooling office buildings. Ice Energy takes electricity produced in off peak hours to make ice. That ice is used to cool the building during the day. A typical average of 55% of the energy used in your home goes towards conditioning the air. In many homes, cooling air is accomplished by driving internal air over an exchanger which has a cooled substance in pipes. This liquid, generally freon, takes the heat from the internal air, and then it is taken outside where the heat is exchanged to the external air. The cooled freon makes the round again. From what I can determine, Ice Energy is taking half of this process to be done at night, when electricity costs are cheaper. This benefits the consumer, and the producer of the electricity. When peak demand rolls around, there will be less requirement to use power.
Energy storage takes on many forms. Batteries are storage devices we use everyday, and there have been breakthroughs in this technology. I have seen solar panels hooked up to common car batteries. This idea has lead some to consider using electric vehicle batteries for home use. This sounds feasible, and it is a tech which is already available. Could we store energy electricity at night to be used during the day? The idea is being considered by some. Real advances in storage technology are coming from the field of research which involves super-capacitors. Here is a quote from Energy Efficiency News about Gary Rubloff:
Rubloff and his colleagues have developed an energy storage device that improves on the performance of electrostatic capacitors – a device that stores energy as electric charge.
The tiny capacitors consist of a layered structure of metal-insulator-metal thin films. The devices are fabricated in massive arrays using minute holes at a density of 60 billion per square inch.
Nano-tech is involved again. Arrays for these electrostatic capacitors could function to hold solar panel electricity for when we need it in the evenings, or to store it at night to be used during the day.
As you have guessed, leaps and bounds are being made, and ideas are flowing, but we are not quite there with efficient storage devices yet. I think another stumbling block will be the efficiency of our appliances. Here is a quote from Electrolux:
Today’s Electrolux best fridges consume 70% less energy than the average 15 years ago. With the right market framework, we can do even more.
That is quite an improvement. Most of this is probably due to improvements in electric motor design. Most energy in your home is wasted by inefficient motors. Most appliances, from the refrigerator to the dishwasher to the microwave, use motors, as do you fans. Still, think about it: over the last fifteen years improvements energy efficient appliances have had improvements made. When I perform my home inspections, I find ceiling fans that are thirty years old. I see refrigerators that are twenty years old. If it works, why should we get rid of it? This is a problem for the green industry to face. Newer products may be greener, but throwing old ones out is not a green thing to do. Furthermore, we are asking the consumer to bear another cost. For this reason, we may not see a full smart grid which extends into the home in the next twenty years.
Hopefully, we consumers come to see the advantage of the cost savings of smart grid technology, and we do begin to implement it soon. There are ways for us to recycle old equipment, and it will be to our benefit to invest in these new appliances in our homes. Personally, I would love to have power after a hurricane knocks out the grid.