The Smart Girl's Guide to the Smart Grid (and Other Clean Technology)

In May, many of us shuddered in horror as meters indicated the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had climbed to levels unseen in 3 million years, exceeding 400 parts per million. With the environment in death throes, the bankruptcy of Hostess, and the existence of a Ryan Lochte reality TV show, it’s easy to feel like the end-of-days is nigh. But before you start thinking you may never have to figure out what a 401K is, here’s a small sampler of what’s gaining ground in clean tech so you can go ahead and allow yourself a little optimism. [Image: Getty Images]

LEED-Platinum Modular Homes

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Like your IKEA coffee table, modular or prefab homes are designed in a central facility and delivered to their intended site for construction. Each dwelling is made by arranging six-sided boxes or “modules” side-by-side, end-to-end, or up to six stories. Since all modular homes from a given company derivate from the same pieces, the manufacturer knows precisely how to put them together, and the exact quantity of materials needed, eliminating the dumpsters of waste you see at normal construction sites.

Modular homes aren’t exactly new, but the argument has always been that they’re ugly or costly or both. Recently, however, companies like eco-entrepreneur Steve Glenn’s LivingHomes have resolved this issue by partnering with starchitects to develop designer homes at (relatively) affordable prices. LivingHomes’ cheapest house is designed by Ray Kappe, starts at $139,000, and can be installed in five to six weeks. Even cooler, modular homes can be built with LEED platinum-level ratings so they save energy over their entire life times. (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design is a rating system and certificate overseen by the United States Green Building Council to measure a structure’s sustainability performance). Check out this interview with Glenn. [Image: Getty Images]

Distributed Generation

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Talk of a clean energy future inevitably invovles the concept of distributed generation, or DG–a paradigm shift in the way we produce and transmit energy. Currently, the energy most of us use comes from large, centralized power plants that can be up to 100 miles away. Power from these facilities is combustion or nuclear-based, generating tons of carbon dioxide. Lengthy transmission lines cause environmental disruption, and electricity is lost as it travels from point A to B, increasing your bill.

DG calls for a web of small-scale generators to produce electricity close to those who will consume it. These power stations can reflect the local context, using solar if the community is sunny, turbines if it sees a lot of wind, and so on with geothermal, hydrothermal, or natural gas. Even if the generator is regular ol’ combustion, the elimination of transmission lines curbs waste and is better for the environment. Finally, distributed generation is more resilient in the face of extreme weather and acts of terror. With a decentralized system, loss of power is containable—you can’t wreck half of it in one blow. [Image: Getty Images]

The Smart Grid

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The smart grid is a collective effort by government, public and private-owned utilities, and start-ups to bring the electrical grid into the computer age. As the Department of Energy puts it: “Much in the way that a ‘smart’ phone means a phone with a computer in it, smart grid means ‘computerizing’ the electric utility grid.”

For a century, utilities have sent workers out to homes to read meters, inspect broken equipment, measure voltage, etc. The same workers are now installing sensors in homes, substations, and across the electrical system in order to gather second-by-second readings that provide useful information about energy supply and consumption. Knowing exactly where a problem lies on the grid facilitates a fast fix; measuring energy load from afar means utilities can determine when to safely incorporate renewable energy; and our ability to interface with our energy consumption online will mean electricity, money, and the environment saved. [Image: Getty Images]

Multiple-Benefit Water Projects

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In the world of water, the threat of global warming has caused cities that rely heavily on imported water to invest in trapping and recycling local supplies. As a result, regulators and engineers are beginning to combine recapture and reuse projects with community beautification or habitat restoration in an effort to derive multiple benefits from each dollar spent.

Last year in L.A., for example, the city unveiled the nine-acre South Los Angeles Wetlands Park, built on what was once a derelict bus yard. The park is composed of walking paths, native plants, and several sprawling pools filled with storm water. Naturally occurring bacteria clean pollutants from the water, which eventually feeds into a storm drain. Best of all, the underserved community has green space to call its own. Get more on the park here. [Image: Getty Images]

Cool Roofs

For those of us lacking the means to plop an eco-friendly, designer prefab on our desert island in Dubai, cool roofs are a more affordable way to combat global warming. On a typical summer day, the NYC Cool Roofs Initiative says black asphalt rooftops can reach 190 degrees—90 degrees hotter than the surrounding air temperature. “Cool” rooftops are painted with a reflective white paint that channels heat away from buildings, reducing internal temperatures by 30 percent. By lowering the amount of power needed to keep cool indoors, the reflective roofs help reduce green house gas emissions. Cool roofs are now required on new buildings in certain cities, but a plethora of regional nonprofits are dedicated to setting standards, measuring effectiveness, and covering costs or mobilizing volunteer painters. [Image: Unsplash]