Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Smart Grid and Why it Won't Save Me

I'm not going to be on it, that's why.

Our electrical grid is mostly 60s and 70s technology. The logical thing would be to rebuild it from the ground up. That's not going to happen. Nobody's going to invest the capital to make it work right. We are pretty much going to be stuck with what we've got.

So what's all the hype about a Smart Grid? It's a band-aid, a patch, a kludge, -lipstick on a pig if you will. If all goes well, it will help manage the decline of a failing system.

That's not to say there won't be benefits. One promised result with be the end of cascading failures. During the Northeast power outage, a problem in one part of the grid caused other parts of the grid to fail. A smart system should isolate the problem to a smaller local area.

Another selling point is that users will better be able to manage their power use. There are several methods that can be done. One way is to make it very visible, in real time, how much power you are using and what it's costing you. Another way is to shift loads from peak demand times to low demand times. For example, there could be incentives, such as lower rates, for doing laundry in the evening rather than in the afternoon.

Those are real benefits to the consumer. However, there can be some potential downsides. People might be offered a premium service that guarantees they'd be the last to have their power turned off during high demand periods. Poor folks with basic service would be shut off first during high usage times. As energy supplies become scarce, smart meters are a way of rationing supply. The remaining energy can easily be directed to the highest bidder.

No matter how smart the grid is, it still doesn't address the basic problem of grid distributed power: two thirds of the energy is lost in transmission. Note too, adding smart grid technology will add another failure point -the smart grid technology itself. Maybe it can be hacked. Maybe it's susceptible to totally unknown problems. It is one more thing to go wrong.

It could work well on a very small scale. Picture a handful of houses. One has a windmill, another has solar electric panels, a third has micro-hydro and a forth a biodiesel powered generator. Computers could balance the loads. The biodiesel generator would only come on when demand was highest. It's the most expensive to run, so being able to voluntary cut usage would save the group money. Since the houses are close together, transmission losses are minimal. Smart grid might work if drastically scaled down.

In the beginning I stated I won't be on the smart grid. I'll expand my off-grid system first. I'm the smart part of my system. Laundry is done during sunny days when my solar electric panels are working at their best. (exactly backwards from the smart grid when they are trying to save daytime power for business and AC.) My electrical loads have been reduced to the point where it's feasible to generate my own power. Having built my own system, I know what it can and can't do. Rather than build a system big enough to handle absolutely everything running full blast, the system runs less than that. I just make sure not to do laundry while using my table saw.

Currently, I'm still partially on the grid. The grid functions pretty much like a backup generator would on a totally off-grid house. I'd expected to be totally off grid by now, but my back up generator hasn't been set up yet. Still waiting for it to arrive. (long story) Had another backup system that ran off my truck, but that's out on loan right now.

Even without backup, I know how to live within the energy budget of my solar panels. The most useful thing for accomplishing that is a tiny gage mounted right in my kitchen. It shows the current charge in my batteries. If they get low, I conserve. When the batteries are full, it's a good time to do things that require more power. Out here in the country, the grid goes down often enough for me to practice.

So, what kind of power do you want? The smart grid kind where someone controls what happens to you or your own alternative power system where you are the smart part?


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