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Smart Grids: Cleaner, more dependable energy from a dynamic network of minds

An engineer, a lawyer and an office building manager walked into a bar. Faster than you can say kilowatt, the eclectic trio ordered up an electric smart grid.

Clearly I’m not a comedian. Not intentionally, anyway – quirky hooks are designed to get your attention. But as with all hooks there is a payoff: engineers, lawyers, building managers and others (including and especially investors) are all working on building smart grids. Each has their reasons for optimizing electric power use and collectively, even if independently, they are responsible for the brighter and cleaner future that smart grids offer.

So what is a smart grid? The short answer is we are learning ways to be more intelligent about our energy use – to save money, ensure consistent power delivery (especially during peak demand times or other conditions of duress) and reduce consumption of fossil fuels. The longer answer is even bigger than its formidable Wikipedia page.

But how smart grids are developed, what they look like and what they can do take many different forms. I’ve recently written articles (in Green Building & Design and Profile magazines) on the topic and here’s what I found:

Engineer Robyn Beavers, senior vice president of innovation for NRG Energy (San Francisco), describes it as “alternative and compatible infrastructure that can improve environmental performance, reduce outages and become more resilient for end users.” For example, she envisions micro-grids powered by one building’s solar collectors as neighborhood backups when storms wipe out power lines from the regional utility. My Q&A article touches on the disruptive (from a business standpoint) nature of improving upon the status quo of electric power distribution. Robyn was featured in another edition of the same magazine for her leadership as a woman in sustainability.

Lawyer Ronato Potello , chief legal advisor to Solantro Semiconductor Corp. (Ottawa), puts it this way: “Energy will be accumulated, stored, and distributed laterally in the same way we download, store, and transmit information through the Internet. The creation of a renewable-energy regime, loaded by buildings, partially stored in the form of hydrogen, distributed through an energy Internet [i.e., a smart intergrid], and connected to zero-emission transport, is the way of the future.” In his role as a lawyer, Potello told me, scaling up a fast-growth business requires close attention to regulatory and intellectual property issues (he also states he is passionate about renewable and efficient energy).

Office building management experts Michael Munson and Michael Cornicelli, both affiliated with the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) of Chicago, oversee smart grid test programs in the Windy City. These efforts pursue efficiencies for office tenants, putting to use real time data that can compel those tenants to make decisions such as to pre-cool buildings in the early morning hours of hot summer days (when prices are low), to shut down elevator banks at low-usage times and to selectively dim lights when certain areas are not in use. As they explained to me, the objectives are solidly financial in nature, but by reducing the load in peak usage times there is less pressure to fire up the utility’s older, less-efficient power generation plants. That can easily translate into reduced fossil fuel use.

And speaking of financial matters, economist Nils Kok talked to me about his Global Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark, or GRESB, for a Q&A in a recent edition of Green Building & Design magazine. The benchmark factors sustainability into financial evaluations of real estate portfolios. It provides investors a way to look at LEED-certified and other types of energy efficient buildings from a dollars and cents (or Euros, Pounds, Yen, Yuan, Peso, Real, etc.) perspective. Important note: efficient buildings are worth more.

It’s no joke what smart energy use can accomplish. Even if it’s a little complicated for bar talk, you can be a lot more intelligent about the future of buildings, energy and commercial real estate investing when you know a thing or two about smart grids.

Russ Klettke is only smart when he does his homework and has the opportunity to interview truly intelligent, innovative people. As a independent business writer he also covers a broad range of topics, including sustainable design and innovation, law, finance, real estate, wellness (fitness, nutrition), food, consumer products, manufacturing and services. Contact him to discuss your communications needs.


Photo: Nils Kok, CEO and founder of GRESB is also associate professor in finance and real estate at Maastricht University (Netherlands) and was a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley. He writes that by improving how we measure building energy performance, investors can know more about the value of larger building portfolios. Ultimately, this can make investments such as 401(k) plans perform better.

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Russ Klettke

Business Writer

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