Energy consumption of tomorrow, today!

Humans respond to incentive. When fuel prices go up, more people park their cars and take the bus. If the cost of honey goes down, cereal manufacturers use it to sweeten their products because it costs less than corn syrup. When the cost of gasoline hits an all time high, consumers begin to view the cost of a hybrid vehicle as worthwhile.

That is why Smart Grid technology is going to change the way we consume energy by motivating consumers to power their homes in a sustainable fashion.

Can you remember the last time you experienced a black out because Manitoba Hydro could not keep up with customers’ demand for energy? Not likely. That’s because utility companies in Canada satisfy demand by ensuring sufficient supply. To meet consumer needs, Manitoba Hydro usually just lets more water run through a dam in the north of the province. In other jurisdictions that are not blessed with an abundance of hydro electricity, the answer to spikes in power consumption is having a manned power plant on stand-by produce the necessary power.

Power companies all over the world will switch to renewable energy sources only when they can deliver it to the consumer at a comparable rate to non-renewable energy sources such as coal or diesel.

Imagine a scenario in which all of the major appliances in your home have the ability to communicate via the wireless network that is probably already in place at your home. You surf to the Manitoba Hydro webpage, login and there’s a list of your appliances that includes your fridge, furnace, washer, dryer and maybe your plug-in hybrid car. You can tell the furnace that you normally like your home to go no lower than 18 in the winter. But, if it saved you some cash, you would be willing to sustain temperatures to a minimum of 15 C for no longer than half an hour? You could also tell your dryer to shut off if the cost of power increases over a threshold that you set. It might take 10 more minutes to dry your clothes, but it could cost half as much and allow power companies to stop idling in case of a massive spike.

The good news is that GE predicts it will only cost $10 more to produce appliances with the ability to communicate with your computer and the power grid. If we want to live in a world where we can afford to have our energy needs met through renewable energy resources, committing to Smart Grid technology is the first step.

If a power company can communicate with you about the price of energy, you might program your clothes dryer to wait until demand wanes and the price goes down. You save money and, by helping to smooth consumption rates, you’ve just made alternative energy sources more viable.

We do not need to sacrifice our quality of life in order to be nicer to our planet. Global warming is not a problem that as a society we can compost our way out of. We need to start treating our resources as precious and finite.

As a province, we can be lethargic on this issue and wait for British Columbia to develop this technology, and in 15 years we will adopt it once it is so obvious to mainstream society that our current methods of delivering electricity to the consumer are antiquated. Conversely, our leaders could do what they were elected to do, which is lead.

By being an early adopter in Smart Grid technology, Manitoba has the ability become a leader in this emerging technology. Late adopting provinces will copy our models and pay us to come to their province and implement what we have learned. This will create the type of high-tech jobs that we must create in order to remain competitive in the coming decades.

Steve Langston, author of Manitoba by Bicycle, is a writer who also runs his own production company.