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Come Together, Right Now: How Utilities Can Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions

About 30% of all carbon emissions come from burning fossil fuels, which are used to generate about 85% of the electricity consumed in modern society. Climate change concerns aside, a concerted industry effort is underway to deploy technologies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Utility operators who want to shrink their emissions footprint are working hard to balance the demand for cost-effective electricity with generation and delivery infrastructure that is more environmentally responsible. A big part of the solution is incorporating renewable energy resources such as solar and wind power into the grid. A recent report from the International Energy Agency shows renewable energy will be the largest single source of electricity growth over the next five years.

But renewables are just one piece of the puzzle, and utility operators are only some of the players involved in energy generation. To have a larger impact, utility operators are increasingly working with customers and suppliers to help improve the efficiency of the electricity production and delivery infrastructure, as well as to reduce the demand for electricity by influencing customer behaviors. This is a pivotal moment for the industry, and by working together, we can do much to achieve a more responsible carbon footprint.

Enlisting Customer Help

When demand gets particularly high, such as on hot summer days or cold winter nights, utilities have to turn to reserve generators — assets that are essentially kept on standby until they are needed — which are costly. To reduce relying on these generators, utilities can implement demand response programs, which are programs that incentivize consumers to adjust the times when they use the most electricity by providing control signals and/or financial motivation. Los Angeles, for example, declares a “flex alert” when demand gets high. The alert signals customers to turn off unnecessary lights, restrict the use of major appliances until after 9 p.m. and set thermostats at 78 degrees Fahrenheit. Data shows that beyond simply shifting the energy consumption to a time that better suits the energy infrastructure’s capabilities, an accompanying drop in the overall energy consumption also usually occurs, thereby driving a reduction in carbon emissions.

A recent study from the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative (SGCC), a nonprofit organization that studies the wants and needs of energy consumers in the United States, shows that consumers are open to these kinds of cues and other energy-saving technologies. Half of consumers polled said they were looking for ways to save energy.

Demand response programs are the missing link in achieving a true partnership between utilities and consumers — the supply side and the demand side. The Smart Energy Demand Coalition (SEDC), a leading voice-on-demand response in Europe, points out that without this partnership, the grid will continue to function in a traditional manner, with generation supplying the energy which the demand side continues to blindly consume.  Maintaining the status quo will mean continued poor use of our infrastructure, with unnecessarily high peak energy use during a few hours of the day determining the maximum generation, transmission and distribution infrastructure needed to serve that demand. Demand response programs that reduce that peak load help by slowing the rate at which the peak grows year over year. This curbs the spending needed to grow generation and delivery resources and ultimately keeps the cost of electricity down. The carbon footprint reduction associated with slowing down the growth of generation, transmission and distribution assets is another important factor utilities can consider as they develop their sustainability plans. 

Working With Smart Suppliers To Reduce And Manage SF6

Beyond influencing demand, utilities also can work with their suppliers to make new choices when selecting equipment. A great example is with switchgear and protection equipment, much of which relies on SF6 gas for insulation. SF6 is one of the most potent greenhouse gases known to man, with a warming effect that is 23,500 times greater than CO2. High-voltage power-transmission equipment such as gas-insulated substations, switchgear and busbars use ~10,000 tons per year (80% of the total produced amount) of SF6.

Replacing SF6 could go a long way toward lowering global greenhouse gas emissions, which is why scientists are developing less harmful alternatives. Through a partnership with 3M, engineers at GE’s Grid Solutions business have identified a fluoronitrile-based gas mixture, which is called g³ — “Green Gas for Grid.” This mixture has a global warming potential that is 98% lower than SF6 and is suitable for developing a new generation of clean equipment across the voltage spectrum. GE also has partnered with other innovative, environmentally focused companies to help accelerate the development of eco-friendly switchgear, utilizing g³, that is fit for power systems. This would offer utilities an array of new infrastructure options.

Utilities, of course, also need to ensure that they are taking every precaution to reduce emissions due to operational or accidental releases of SF6 into the atmosphere. That means working with service providers who can help make sure that the gas is being handled properly at every step of the equipment lifecycle.

Service providers in this area can help educate utilities about safe SF6 management. GE’s Green Services offering includes a certification program for workers in SF6 recovery. This certification program provides theoretical and practical teaching about safely manipulating and containing SF6.Other services help make sure that equipment that uses SF6 is operating properly and meeting specific gas pressure and gas quality standards. When the gas is recycled, it must be handled safely to avoid any leakage. Looking for a service provider who can help to retrofit, maintain, overhaul or upgrade any gas-insulated equipment in safe, clean and environmentally friendly conditions becomes a crucial step in utilities’ sustainable development strategies. 

Utility operators must play a leadership role to help achieve meaningful change in global greenhouse gas emissions. But they can’t do it without the help of consumers, suppliers, regulators and advocacy groups. If everyone comes together right now, we can leave a better world for future generations.