Challenges, Vol. 4, Pages 201-216: Getting Smart? Climate Change and the Electric Grid

Research paper by Jennie Stephens, Elizabeth Wilson, Tarla Peterson, James Meadowcroft

Indexed on: 13 May '16Published on: 05 Sep '13Published in: Challenges


Interest in the potential of smart grid to transform the way societies generate, distribute, and use electricity has increased dramatically over the past decade. A smarter grid could contribute to both climate change mitigation and adaptation by increasing low-carbon electricity production and enhancing system reliability and resilience. However, climate goals are not necessarily essential for smart grid. Climate change is only one of many considerations motivating innovation in electricity systems, and depending on the path of grid modernization, a future smart grid might do little to reduce, or could even exacerbate, risks associated with climate change. This paper identifies tensions within a shared smart grid vision and illustrates how competing societal priorities are influencing electricity system innovation. Co-existing but divergent priorities among key actors’ are mapped across two critical dimensions: centralized versus decentralized energy systems and radical versus incremental change. Understanding these tensions provides insights on how climate change objectives can be integrated to shape smart grid development. Electricity system change is context-specific and path-dependent, so specific strategies linking smart grid and climate change need to be developed at local, regional, and national levels. And while incremental improvements may bring short term gains, a radical transformation is needed to realize climate objectives.