People seem terrified of the Smart Grid. I'm an electrical engineer, and here's my attempt at explaining what the hoopla is all about.
The Muskegon Critic posted this interesting diary entry about his experience at a committee meeting, encountering for the first time the weird paranoid nonsense being peddled by the right wing, regarding Smart Grid technology, and, in the comments you can find lots of examples of the weird paranoid nonsense being peddled by the left wing. I am an exasperated electrical engineer with an alliteration habit, so in this diary I'll give y'all a layman's introduction to why
the utility sector is so intent on going Smart Grid.
The first reason is very simple: America was the first country to have electric utility service, and our power grid is ancient. In Boston, where I live, there are homes that still have the wiring that was installed by Edison Electric when Thomas Edison was in charge of it. These are uninsulated wires that stretch at tension from porcelain bulbs in hidden crawl spaces around old houses. Thankfully, they're not live. Usually. There are also telephone wires that were literally, honest-to-goodness, laid down by Alexander Graham Bell himself, and some of those are probably still in use. Well, as the saying goes, the early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.
We were the first to adopt many forms of utility infrastructure, including electricity, telephones, and now our infrastructure is ancient and falling apart. This is why telephone service is so much better in the former Soviet nations of the Baltic Sea. They built from scratch in 1991. And, if we're going to build a new grid, we need the best the state of the art has to offer.
The second reason is more complicated. Our power grid is powered by a variety of sources: nuclear, biomass, coal, oil, natural gas, and hydro, as well as solar, and wind. And this combination powers everything. Now on the consumer side, we have, well, everybody. And what everybody wants
is for the juice to flow as soon as they flick something on, and to stop as soon as they flick it off. Which is all well and good, except generators don't work like that.
You need a notice period of around 24 hours to change the power output of a nuclear plant up or down. Those things are delicate and they are steered veeeeeery gently and slowly. If you want to change the output level of a coal plant, it takes a few hours, because the plant managers have to recheck the size of their coal in storage (it's very easy for one of these plants to run out of coal, and it's also very easy for it to run out of space for coal), and so phone calls have to be made to ascertain where the incoming coal trains are, especially if it looks like the plant will ask for a new shipment, or for the deferral of a shipment en route. Same applies to biomass. For an oil burning
plant, you need 10 minutes or so for the boilers to reach the new equilibrium temperature. And then there's natural gas and hydro, where so long as you have the gas in the tank (or the water in the reservoir), you can just twist the nob, and the power is flowing.
Then there's solar and wind. You can get as much power as the weather is going to give you, and no more. No notice periods. No begging or pleading, or bidding for power. The sun shines and the wind blows at God's schedule, not yours.
What the utilities do, then, is run the nukes and coal plants to provide a baseline of power to the grid, and then all the other plants to answer for fluctuations in power demand from their customers. The biggest source of quickly dispatched power is natural gas. That's what the utilities adjust for changes in power demand, minute by minute. But, there are problems there:
Natural gas generators are expensive, and they require more money for maintenance than most others. Our continent is mostly out of natural gas, which is why we're trying this insanely dangerous gambit we call hydrofracking to get what little of it remains. Gas is cheap to pipeline overland,
and under short stretches of the ocean. But to ship it from continent to continent, you have to use liquified natural gas tanker ships, which also make for very nice city-busting fuel air bombs. This is why despite being insanely dependent on imported natural gas, the good citizens of California did not allow natural gas tankers to arrive in a Californian port. Instead the gas ships dock in Tijuana, and the gas is then pipelined to San Diego and points north.
Europe has much better access to natural gas. Central Asia has a lot of it, and there are pipelines from there to Russia and to points west. The problem is that if your very survival every winter depends on the gas coming from the Russian pipelines, you, well and truly, are Vladimir
Putin's bitch. And since the citizens of the European Union have too much self respect to do that, they are installing smart grid technology all over the place, to reduce their need for natural gas. And this is what that accomplishes:
So, what the utilities want to do is called "demand side response." Which means when you flick a switch on, the utility might not respond by upping production, but instead by getting somebody else to flick a switch off. Demand side response already exists for industrial users. If you run an aluminum smelting plant, you are required to shut down completely whenever the utility asks. And I mean shut down within minutes. Now, if you want to be able to get your power from sources that do not dispatch quickly, you have to get more and more of your users to tailor their consumption of power to your ability to produce it. And you need this to be automated, and transparent. Hence, household smart meters.
The first rationale behind smart meters is simply to get the household user to look at it and see what the going price for electricity is before turning on the dishwasher, the drier, the big power users in the household. The second takes a few more smarts, since it involves programming those devices. Think for a second about your air conditioner, refrigerator, washer, drier, and dishwasher. The first two have thermostats that decide when to turn on or off. If you "smarten" those up, they can be programmed to run more intensely when power is cheap, and less when it's not. Your freezer needs to keep everything below 32F. But if power is plentiful and cheap, it can run harder and drive the temperatures to say, 0F. Then, when power becomes more expensive, it doesn't run as much, but your frozen pizzas are going to take some time getting back up to 32F, and that saves you money. Same with your fridge and AC.
Next come the washer, drier, and dishwasher. In Germany, it's part of the nightly routine to load all of them, and set a delay so they run some time in the early hours of the morning. I use that for my dishwasher, but my washer and drier are too old school for the moment. That is all well and good, but we can do better. With a smartified dishwasher, you can tell it "do the dishes between 12AM and 6AM, as soon as the utility says it's okay." If all your neighbors do the same thing, yours will get done at 12, your neighbor at 1, and so on and so forth. That way the power level that the utility has to provide is nice and flat. And if there is a burst of wind, the utility can take care of your whole block at once.
The benefits of this are immense. It means the utilities have much more flexibility in how they get you the power you want, which our fragile power grid needs desperately. Now, on to the paranoia:
BILLS: The most commonly offered criticism of the smart grid is that it will
result in higher bills. That is certainly true for some people. If you don't take the effort to check the rates before you turn on a big appliance, if you get a smart meter in your household but keep using electricity when you want it instead of playing by these new rules, your bills will go up. But the thing is, if you still insist on running your electricity the same as before, then you are the jerk
who is still leaving your neighborhood at risk of a blackout. You are the one whose sudden use of power means the utility has to make a purchase of natgas at exorbitant rates in the summer. And you should pay the price.
Of course, that's an easy thing to say to a young Kossack who is still teachable. Those of us who are so inept in math that we are terrified of paying different rates for nighttime electricity versus daytime, or who can't program the VCR, well, we're going to stay dumb no matter how much the utilities plead with us to smarten our use of electricity. There are no easy answers here.
CONTROL: another paranoid rambling I've heard is "OMG, this means the guvmint can turn off your AC remotely." My answer is this: "Big Brother, if you need to turn off my AC, please do it." I am a healthy man in my 30's. The couple next door, a very nice couple, are in their 80's. If there is a heatwave and the power grid is overloaded, I would rather see my power company turn off my AC remotely, than see a rolling blackout that takes out my whole neighborhood. If that happens, one of my neighbors will die in the heat. Please. Just press the button and turn off my air conditioner. I'll be fine. One of the biggest problems we have in this country is a lot of people who think they are "rugged individualists" but are in fact incredibly pampered consumers, and who think their actions do not affect others. If you are connected to the power grid, everything you do affects everything else, so start acting like it.
DISCONNECTION: smart meters technology also means you can't stop the utility from reading the meter by chaining a pit bull to it, and if they want to disconnect you, they don't have to come to the block and open the local distribution box. This is November, and the thought of being disconnected in winter is terrifying. Smart grid means the utility has a new way of doing this, but, it's still illegal. Unless you sign up for prepaid power, you need not worry there. But more importantly, you need to understand that unlike our bailed-out finance sector, our utilities are not flush with cash. When you look at their cash reserves, and compare against the cost of their backlog of needed infrastructure maintenance, it's a scary picture. We should help the poor get through the winter by finding the money ourselves, through taxation and proper subsidy programs, instead of just issuing a demand that the utilities do it for us for free.
PRIVACY: If instead of just adding up your consumption per month, the utility tracks it by the minute, that does mean they have a lot of information about how you live your life. For example, when I leave my house, I have a timer turn some lights on and off, at random times in the evening, to make it look like I'm still there. But I don't run the dishwasher. Which means the monitoring staff at the local utility power substation have a way of figuring it. But here's the catch: even if I don't sign up for a smart meter, the utility can, and WILL, still put smart grid equipment at the big box on the power pole on my block, and they can still detect what my power consumption profile is. They need this for many other reasons (if a wire fails on my block, they want to know which one BEFORE sending out the lineman teams.) Refusing a smart meter won't protect your privacy. What will do the job is the same thing the Occupy Wall Street protesters are fighting for: a government that serves the people and does so diligently. So instead of fighting against the adoption of smart meters, join the Occupiers.
So to some up: we need a smart grid, so that we can increase our use of new power sources, and suffer from fewer blackouts. Stop the paranoia, step up to the challenge and join the smart grid wave. Your country needs this from you.