by Adam Cox
Where was Smart Grid and why didn’t it help?
Well now the rubber has really met the road. For the past 24 months consumers have been hearing about Smart Grid, Sustainable Communities, Energy Conservation, etc…and how the grid can now heal itself, blah, blah, blah and they will never be out of power again. We have those really entertaining TV commercials from some large technology and consulting firms to thank for this, plus the oversell done by the federal government and other energy advocacy groups.
Now in a week of extremely severe weather those implied promises have fallen dramatically short and the consumers are as usual upset with the utility companies. It is now time for the evil energy corporations to once again bear the brunt of the public outcry. Now in the interest of fairness the energy companies did make some mistakes in the week leading up to the storms and during the storms themselves; that will be a topic for another day. Back to the issue at hand, I can guarantee you that were you to search through all the articles and watch all the news reports no one will be talking about what consumers have done in the past 24 months to work with, or in most cases roadblock, local utilities to enable all this great new technology. Which puts in sharp focus the root cause of the entire Smart Grid controversy, now exposed for anyone paying attention.
Consumers demand perfect service, low rates, 100% control & privacy, and instant response in the event something happens.
Utilities want to deliver perfect service, keep consumers rates as low as possible yet still earn a profit, create alternative demand response approaches by more granular control of consumption on the grid, and have the highest possible response times in the event something happens.
Opposing point number 1: Perfect Service
Doesn’t exist and won’t exist in our lifetimes. In order to provide perfect service the national electric and gas distribution infrastructure would have to be built to accommodate maximum peak demand. This level of consumption is fair below average or base load and would represent an enormous amount of assets that would be idle for long periods of time. Construction costs would be enormous, rates would skyrocket, and the target is always changing. Some may vaguely at this point remember speeches by President Obama, Secretary of Energy Chu, and other industry leaders about why 10 – 30% reductions by 2020 were important. If not you can search on energy reduction policies for 2020 and find tons of information at the state and federal agency levels. Bottom line, demand will outpace capacity for the next decade. The question for consumers and utilities to ask is how to achieve these reductions, because in emergency situations more efficient homes and business make a difference between rolling blackouts and no rolling blackouts.
Opposing point number 2: Low rates
Rates are not going to go down. There it is, accept it and move on. Basic supply and demand applies here; demand is continuing to grow while supply is struggling to keep up. Smart Grid is not going to lower rates, consumers could see a reduction in their bill from using energy smarter but rates per kilowatt hour will not be lowered as a result of putting a smart meter at homes, smart plugs/IHDs in the home and enabling more granular control. If you add in the demand of perfect service referenced above lowering rates becomes impossible. What consumers should be demanding are the tools to manage their power consumption better. Shockingly the exact opposite is happening as vast amounts of consumers dig in at the thought of the utility, who supplies all of their power already, knowing how it is being used in the home at the major appliance level. Unless you are Dr. Evil channeling off power to build your next generation death ray, what is the real negative impact to you as a consumer?
Going back to our title and original two questions:
1. Last week’s rolling blackouts, are the energy companies to blame? The energy companies have to share some blame in the event, but consumers do not get to skate on this one. Many of the major utilities in Texas have been advancing Smart Grid and Sustainable Community programs for the past 18 – 24 months and consumers have not shown the slightest inclination as a majority to get on board or acknowledge the reality that electricity, natural gas, and water is a shared commodity. Consuming energy more intelligently is not infringing on your constitutional rights, in fact it is just the opposite. Being a smarter consumer of energy in all its forms is being a good citizen of this country and member of your local community.
2. Last week’s rolling blackouts, where was Smart Grid and why didn’t it help? The electrical grid, with the exception of some large and small pilots, has not changed just because a smart meter has been installed at a consumer’s home. Without the cooperation of consumers to allow, some parts of the home to managed, aka turned off for short periods of time, utilities are constrained to turning off blocks of homes being powered on a shared circuit at the substation. The same method we have always used, or at least the last 25 years. In short Smart Grid didn’t help because on a large scale it does not exist yet.
There were a lot of contributing factors beyond those I have discussed today, to last week’s rolling blackouts. All parties share blame including regulators, consumers, and energy providers. The way forward is to work together as consumers and providers, a simple concept that is now and will continue to be a struggle to make a reality.