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What Exactly Does a “Smart” Electric Grid Look Like?

People are often shocked at the size of their electricity bills and have very little understanding of the source or cause of high bills.  For example, a friend recently moved into a new house in the Northeast Valley and was surprised that the per-day energy use was about the same as the old house, even though nobody lived in the new house for part of the billing cycle (June-July).  The new house is also smaller than the old house.  She swears that the thermostat is busted.

I reminded her that we've had some intensely hot days during the move transition, which may well account for the higher energy usage on her first bill at the new house.  But, it got me to thinking about the fact that when it comes to our energy usage, we're all kind of flying blind.

The state's major electricity providers - APS, SRP, and Tucson Electric Power (TEP) - have introduced programs that encourage customers to shift energy demand to off-peak hours when the costs of electricity are lower.  Through "time of use" plans customers pay lower rates for energy used during non-peak times.  The plans rely on smart meters to monitor when energy is used (the price depends on the time of day); SRP is expanding to one million smart meters, APS plans to have smart meters installed for all its customers by 2013, and TEP is installing new meters for customers switching to its time-of-use program.

But I wonder how far time-of-use plans and smart meters can really go if we're still relying on an energy system that was built in the 1960s (or before).

A truly smart electricity grid would enable a "two-way flow of electricity and information to create an automated, widely distributed energy delivery network" (National Institute of Standards and Technology).  It would allow both energy users and energy providers to adjust their demand and supply most efficiently.

Journalist Joel Achenbach, who wrote about the nation's electrical infrastructure in an article in July's National Geographic, was on NPR's Fresh Air the other day and explained how a smart grid would change the supply of and demand for electricity: "You'd be able to use electricity when electricity's cheaper -- off-peak hours. You'd be able to generate your own electricity from your car battery if you had an electric car -- or your rooftop solar panel or your windmill in your backyard -- and you'd be able to essentially be a producer as well as consumer of electricity. And you'd have more information at your fingertips about how much electricity you're using -- how efficient am I being?"

I decided to poke around on the Internet a bit to learn some more about what exactly a "smart grid" would look like. Turns out, experts agree that a truly smart grid should:

  • Allow for real-time pricing, "where energy is priced at different rates depending on the time of day and how much demand there is for the electricity. Utilities can use real-time pricing to better manage the loads on the grid, while home owners can use it to cut their monthly energy bills."
  • Deliver clean power where it is most efficiently generated (like solar in Arizona or wind in Wyoming) to where it is most sorely needed (like big cities on the East and West coasts).
  • Have open and interoperable standards.  Right now the nation's power grid is set atop a messily entangled network of state, regional, and federal regulations.  From Wired: "The industry-run North American Electric Reliability Council appoints eight regional agencies to manage grid standards, but they clash with state agencies, which constantly angle for more authority."
  • Be more reliable.  Achenbach calls the current electric grid "reliable but not reliable enough."  Then he delves into a frightening account of the cascade of mishaps and mistakes that caused a $6 billion blackout that affected 50 million people in eight states and Ontario.

So smart meters and time-of-use plans make headway on the first smart grid criterion of real-time pricing, but there's so much more to be done to avoid the blackouts and brownouts that cost us $80 billion a year - and to create an electric grid that is truly fit for purpose in this century.

What's your take?  Write a comment below - no registration required.


Written on Wednesday, 21 July 2010 15:20 by Gary Yaquinto

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