Saturday, June 12, 2010

It's Not About You

Remember the Smart Grid commercial from GE during the Super Bowl this year?  The modern scare crow singing "If I Only Had A Brain" while dancing across the powerlines?  How a Smart Grid (whatever the heck that is) is going to make your life so much better?

"Smart Grid", to quote electronics trade journal Urgent Communications from last year, is moving toward the peak of the hype cycle.  There are commercials and news articles everywhere talking about the crying need for a Smart Grid.  There are reasons to upgrade portions of our power grid, but much of what's being said about Smart Grid is marketing hype.  Companies like GE and Cisco Systems are funding large PR efforts to get hooked up to the government teat on this one.  There's hundreds of billions to suck down. 

Let's start with a few things about power generation and grids.  Some of these are things most people know, others are kinda technical.  Electrical power generation in our country is largely in centralized big power stations.  The main reason for that approach instead of lots of smaller power sources is the economies of scale that make it cheaper to produce large amounts of power; a generator of twice the size may not cost twice as much as the smaller one.  Since AC can be almost losslessly stepped up to very high voltages, transported long distances, and stepped down again, there is little penalty for central power production.  There was a very rancorous public debate between Nicola Tesla and Thomas Edison about 100 years ago, over the merits of distributing DC (Edison) versus AC (Tesla).  Tesla, of course, won.  There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches, and when we chose AC distribution, we gave up the advantages a DC system can have.

The biggest advantage DC has is that it's easy to store DC, and in fact, no practical AC power storage system exists.  For DC systems, batteries are obvious storage systems.  I'm going to ignore a few technicalities here and move on. 

Because we can't store AC, the power grid has to deliver exactly the power needed at the instant it's needed.  In the early design of the power grid, the system really was all about you - the user.  They designed the systems to deliver the power needed on peaks and during the low use times of day (typically the evening and overnight hours) the system ran at low utilization.  Low efficiency.  When the rapid increase in power demand starts with the workday, the plants have to be running all equipment, ready for the load to reach them.  The need to have some load on their equipment overnight (called "load leveling") is an old problem in power plant design and one of the reasons for early, widespread street lights. 

While utilities try to generate enough power to address peak loads, that's complicated by the fact that building new generation plants is extremely expensive, and virtually impossible in some areas of the country due to political reasons (NIMBY homeowners, Global Warmists, etc.).  If the power plant gets a power demand it can't supply, one of two things can happen: either they buy power, or they shut down users.  If they buy power, they are buying it during the peak demand times, and since few suppliers can offer it then, power is at its most expensive.  Of course, no one wants to have their power cut, but it's better to cut some users than to have circuit breakers start opening and the power grid go down.  This is called a "rolling brownout".  You may remember this in California a few years ago.  You may also remember that this was the market space Enron was in; trading power.  

While the power grid has increased in size and coverage, this is still pretty much the way it is. 

So where does a Smart Grid fit in to this?  In the simplest applications, the grid isn't smart in the sense we usually use; lots of processing power and making decisions on its own.  In the simplest applications, monitoring circuitry communicates back to the power plant when, for example, a transformer fails.  In some local grids today, the only way the power company knows a transformer has failed is when someone calls to say their lights are out.  These are low data rate applications, and have been in use for decades.  These are called SCADA systems; Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition. 

Where the new Smart Grid is going is for the power companies to produce power how they want to; it's all about them, not you.  Like a broken hearted teenager out of puppy love gone bad, they're saying, "Why did I do everything for you?  Why don't you do something for me?" to their customers.  The new grid is not about giving you the power you want when you want it, it's about making you do things their way.  To quote from the Urgent Communications article, "For instance, instead of shutting off power completely in a blackout/brownout scenario, utilities with smart-grid capabilities could manage the usage load during such circumstances - perhaps raising all of the thermostats in the affected area by a degree to ensure that essential power can be provided." 

I have to tell you that's laughable.  Here in the Florida summer, the A/C has to run full tilt during the daytime peak hours (as I type this, it's 10PM local; my outdoor thermometer says it's 88 outside - and it won't be summer for almost another 2 weeks).  If they raise thermostats one degree, nothing will happen.  They will have to turn your air conditioner off, and they want to do that, too.  The argument is that they could time sweep the air conditioners across the cities they "serve", turning whole blocks or sub-sections off for some time, and sweeping that as a rolling brownout just for air conditioners. 

Another thing to control is an outlet you might plug your electric car or hybrid into for recharging.  The power that you would get out of gasoline has to come from somewhere; in this case, you've moved your expense from the gas station to the electric company.  These chargers can consume large amounts of current in their fast-charge mode.  In turn, what the electric company wants to do is to not allow your charger to run during the early evening when TVs, dishwashers and other appliances are on.  They want to turn on your charger in the early morning hours; if everyone in your neighborhood had an electric car, say, they might time stagger the charging time for users to minimize the load on a transformer.   

Just look around your house.  Anything that consumes a relatively large amount of power; water heater, air conditioner, your oven, is something that can be controlled. 

Smart grid is a way of feeding back detailed usage data to the power companies, and allowing them to turn off whatever they deem necessary.  It really marks the shift from supplying whatever power the consumer wants, when they want it, to the best of their abilities - a complete customer focus - to trying to manage their customers.  You will sometimes hear about a more "user friendly" version where they will charge you different power rates based on how busy they are, but not turn your appliances off.  If you get home from work in the early evening and your house is way too hot, or too cold, you may find the power rate is much higher than later in the evening.  It will probably encourage a market for timers and programmable devices that only use the electricity when the rates are lowest.  There are other uses for smart grid technologies too, such as improved monitoring and control.  To me, these fall more under the heading of maintenance or modernization, and any sane company will do that. 

Something that really needs to be addressed is the security aspects of anything controlling the grid.  Experts have considered hacker attacks on the grid as likely for quite some time.  Strangely, the primitive SCADA systems and other low-tech dumb systems in use protect us.  They're too stupid to hack.  If your power company ever talks about using Windows products for this, get a big backup generator immediately!

The Urgent Communications magazine article that inspired this is here


  1. Graybeard,

    I have received "offers" from our electrical utility to join this alleged "smart grid" team, i.e. allow the utility to install the AC temperature controller for its alleged benefits to me. I declined, even though I do not have central AC, but I am certain the utilities will have individuals signing up in droves, courtesy of the utlities feel good, save the environment without even having to think advertising campaigns.

  2. I almost mentioned this topic, but was trying to keep it short. The local power company here is big on this and was offering this "service" in exchange for sort of discount on your rates. The only people I personally know who signed up for it are retirees.

    This is, of course, all about the money. GE could make billions off this, but without more power plants, it's taking power from one group and selling it to another. Naive people like, say, the California voters (based on record) seem to think they can get energy without power generation, oil drilling, nuclear power, or anything else. Regardless of anything else, we simply need more power generation.

    Until they discover those magical unicorn farts that will some day power everything.