by Ken Maize, MasterResource.org
June 19, 2009
However politically incorrect my conclusion, I’m convinced that the “smart grid” is not smart and even dumb. It diverts attention from what is a more important objective–a strong grid. And it politicizes in the very area where we need more consumer-driven, free-market incentives.
Following the Northeast grid collapse of 2003, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) popped out the smart grid concept, largely the brainchild of then EPRI’s CEO Kurt Yeager. The blueprint was for an interconnected intelligent network reaching from the generating station to your toaster, able to talk up-and-down the line, matching supply and demand seamlessly.
Sounds cool, but doesn’t stand up to analysis in my judgment.
Where Did ‘Smart Grid’ Come From?
The idea of a smart grid has been laying around in bits and pieces for many years. I recall visiting Southern California Edison (SEC) in the 1980s where a group of us energy reporters visited the utility’s “smart house.” It kinda reminded me of the Betty Furness advertisements for Westinghouse kitchens when I grew up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s and 1960s. SCE assured us that the smart house, connected to the utility over phone lines (this was pre-World Wide Web) and through radio signals, would dominate home construction in the coming years. (Enron would have a ‘smart house’ a decade later to awe visitors to 1400 Smith Street in Houston, but that’s another story.)
Didn’t happen, for lots of reasons, most of them good. It didn’t make economic sense for consumers (although it did for the utility — remember all-electric “gold medallion” homes?). It was way too technologically optimistic, assuming communications protocols that really didn’t exist, and appliances that weren’t remotely ready to talk to each other and the utility. Heck, this was largely before cell phones were making a big impact in the market.
Fast forward to the 21st Century. The grid has shown that it is in trouble. The Internet has demonstrated the utility of Vint Cerf’s IP communications protocol. EPRI is facing an existential moment (what the heck is our role here?). Presto! The smart grid. It controls power flows, adjusts supply demand on the fly, instantly corrects for frequency and power imbalances. It slices, it dices, it’s the latest, biggest, best Ronco product of all time. We can get Billy Mays (no relation, he spells it differently) to peddle it on late-night cable.
Rescuing Dumb Renewables
The concept of the smart grid (if not the reality) also fits into the allegedly new paradigm of renewables. We want lots of power from the wind and the sun (water doesn’t count). But the places where the winds blows a lot and the sun shines a lot are a long way away from where there are a lot of people.
Hence proposals to build a transcontinental, high-voltage (AC and DC) backbone grid on top of the existing transmission and distribution network (which former energy secretary Bill Richardson famously and erroneously called a “third world” grid following the 2003 grid collapse). What’s a trillion dollars or so to bring unreliable power to market?
So here is the Big Green Grid Dream: tie renewables to consumers, with a smart grid to govern (Big Brother?) usage. We could imbue the entire grid — high-voltage transmission and lower-voltage distribution with smarts, from the generator to the substation to the refrigerator. It’s the Big Rock Candy Mountain–or Dream Green Machine.
Another Problem: Cybersecurity
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