This commentary originally appeared on EDF's Voices blog.
Source: Department of Energy Solar Decathlon/Flickr
These days, the future is often in the news. It’s not uncommon to come upon articles about cars that drive themselves, vacation trips to space, and automated smart houses a la the Jetsons.
I don’t know much about space tourism or self-driving cars,
but I do know that smart homes and the associated technologies are already allowing for the possibility of environmental benefits and economic savings that are nothing short of futuristic.
Our utility grid is the largest machine in world. Unfortunately, however, this machine exacts human and environmental costs all the way down the line — from extraction to combustion. But we’re at the beginning of an energy revolution in home energy management systems that may make consumers key players in solving these problems.
If Ben Franklin lived today, he might say that nothing is certain but death, taxes and cyber-attacks. Cyber-attacks occur when individuals or groups hack into another group’s computer information systems to steal, alter or damage key infrastructure. Our nation’s electric grid is under constant attack according to a survey of electric utilities by U.S. House Representatives Henry Waxman and (now) Senator Edward Markey. The grid was the greatest engineering achievement of the 20th Century, but cybersecurity was equally unknown to those grid engineers as it was to Ben Franklin. We need to do more to protect our energy infrastructure.
The U.S. has finally called out China for repeated and pervasive cyber-attacks. Mandiant, a cybersecurity firm, released an alarming report in February 2013 regarding the ongoing cyber-attacks by the Chinese army. James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, described cyber-attacks as a soft war already underway and a dire global threat in his April 2013 World Threat Assessment to the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. In May of this year, for the first time, the Pentagon’s annual report to Congress on the Chinese military openly accused China’s military of repeated cyber-attacks on the U.S. government and defense contractors.
Cyber-attacks are underway not only by China, but also by Iran, Russia, Al-Queda, organized crime, industrial spies, ex-utility employees and rogue hackers. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security investigated over 200 serious cyber-attacks against critical infrastructure during the first half of 2013. The electric grid was targeted in over half of these attacks. At the recent Black Hat security conference in Las Vegas, Cyrill Brunschwiler of Compass Security explained how the smart grid’s wireless network can be easily exploited to steal electricity and to cause massive blackouts. Though innovation and new clean energy technologies are key to modernizing our antiquated energy system, the electric grid is more vulnerable to cyber-attacks with increased use of smartphones, tablets, mobile apps and electric vehicles to connect with our home electronic devices. A July 2012 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) outlines the various threats to the electric grid.
The electric utility industry faces the risk of declining revenues as more customers install solar panels on their homes and businesses. Solar power currently supplies 2% of the country’s electricity needs, and is projected to grow to 16% by 2020. In 2013, solar panel prices for commercial installations fell 15.6%, from $4.64/watt to $3.92/watt. To protect their revenues, some utilities are raising electricity costs for solar panel owners – but with mixed results. Credit ratings agencies are also expressing concern. Is there real cause for alarm or are these companies crying wolf? Judging by one customer segment – big-box retailers – the threat is real.
The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) ranks U.S. companies based on their solar energy capacity, and the top five companies on the list are big-box retailers:
- Walmart tops SEIA’s list with 65,000 kW of solar power, which is enough to supply the annual energy needs of over 10,000 homes. They recently installed ten new solar rooftop systems in Maryland, totaling more than 13,000 panels. Walmart is the largest retailer in the U.S. and in the world by revenue, with 4,423 U.S. stores and over 10,000 stores worldwide. Walmart and EDF have been working together since 2004 to reduce the Walmart’s environmental footprint. With more than 200 solar installations across the country, Walmart plans to have 1,000 solar installations by 2020. Walmart’s goal is to eventually supply 100% of its energy needs with renewable energy.