In Honor of Earth Day: A Salute to the Smart Grid

Back in 1970 Senator Gaylord Nelson had the foresight to set aside a day to recognize the importance of caring for our planet. On April 22nd, we’ll celebrate the 41st annual Earth Day.

Tied directly into the theme of Earth Day, many countries are working on building a “smart grid.” Think about all of the “things” you have plugged in today that you didn’t even have a few years ago–cell phones, laptops, tablet PCs, electronic game consoles, multiple television receivers, and perhaps even an automobile or two! Building a smart grid can reduce the number of new power plants necessary to satisfy the increasing demand for electricity.

Why is reducing the need for new power plants an earth-friendly idea? Because a number of the new power plants will burn coal to generate electricity. In 2010, 11 new coal plants were commissioned, That’s the largest single year total in the last 25 years. Combined, the plants will generate 6.5 gigawatts of electricity. While their potential output is good news, coal generation plants are responsible for 93 percent of the sulfur dioxide generated by the electric utility industry. The “smart grid,” makes electricity transmission (high voltage) and electricity distribution lines more efficient, and provides consumers and utilities with the capability of controlling electricity usage during peak demand times.

  • Consumers can manage peak usage time periods by doing simple things like turning off the pool pump for a few hours on a day of high electricity demand, or by turning off their hot water heaters during the daytime.
  • The “smart grid” also makes it easier for consumers who have windmills or solar panels to sell any unused electricity back to utility companies.
  • By using “smart meters,” there’s no longer a need for a meter reader to drive through neighborhoods and record each meter reading.
  • It also allows utilities to remotely connect and disconnect consumers as they move in and out of residences–something that currently requires that a utility “roll a truck” to a consumer’s house, which results in fuel consumption and the inherent carbon emissions.

To demonstrate how small actions can make a significant difference, AT&T sells a nifty device in its retail stores called a ZERO Charger. If you use a regular cell phone charger to charge your phone, once the phone is fully charged, it still pulls microamps of electricity.  Even if you unplug your cell phone but leave the charger in the outlet, it still pulls microamps of electricity. This is sometimes referred to as “phantom” or “vampire” power.  With the AT&T ZERO Charger, the circuit is disconnected once the phone is fully charged or if the phone is unplugged but the charger is left in the wall. Guess what? If 80 percent of the U.S. wireless subscribers switched to a ZERO Charger, we would save enough electricity to power 24,000 homes for a YEAR!  If all AT&T wireless subscribers used the ZERO Charger, it would eliminate 158 million pounds of carbon emissions, the equivalent of conserving 8 million gallons of gasoline! Small changes, such as using a ZERO Charger or turning off a pool pump for a few hours on a day when peak energy demand is expected, will go a long way to help save energy.

AT&T also plays a big role in the building of the smart grid. Each “smart” device on the “smart” electric grid utilizes two-way communications, and the AT&T wireless network helps provide that communication network. Currently, more than 7 million “smart meters” and other two-way monitoring and sensing devices are read using the AT&T wireless network. From electric vehicle charging stations to solar panels, AT&T provides the backbone for these smart devices to communicate. AT&T is also working with utilities to help ensure network security and to manage the significant increases in data required by the smart grid.

Though Senator Nelson died in 2005, he lived long enough to see Earth Day hit its stride. From ZERO Chargers to providing a communications backbone for the smart grid, AT&T is proud that its efforts help make a difference.

Rita Mix Utility Industry Lead Marketing Manager AT&T About Rita