|Smart Grids: Electricity Networks Are Growing Up|
|Tuesday, 18 December 2012 00:00 | Written by André Oosterman | Article|
Compared to telecommunications networks, electricity grids are pretty dumb. A power company has little information about your electricity usage. It does not know when you switch on your AC and for how long before you decide to switch it off. In fact, it has no way of knowing whether it was your AC you switched on or some other electrical appliance. This will all change soon, benefiting both your pocketbook and the Earth.
Taking a Lesson from Telecommunications
But what’s in it for the telephone company? Why would it give you a discount on calls that you are going to make anyway? Answer: By spreading out demand for phone calls more evenly throughout the day, the company can serve its customers with less capacity than would otherwise be the case, and pass part of the savings on to you. It’s a win-win situation. They make more money and you pay less.
And Applying That Lesson to Power Grids
In Europe, for example, electricity consumption per hour is almost twice as high in the late afternoon and early evening as during the rest of the day. If demand was spread out perfectly, Europe would in theory need only half of the power plants currently in operation (in practice it would need perhaps a few more, if only because power plants add spare capacity as a safety buffer). A recent US Department of Energy study estimates that modernizing US power-delivery systems by adding smart grids would save $46 billion to $117 billion over the next 20 years.
So, if there is money to be made, what are power providers waiting for? Well, first of all, they aren’t waiting. In 2005, Enel of Italy installed the world’s first smart-grid system and claims that it delivers annual savings of €500 million at a project cost of €2.1 billion. In Italy, over 27 million customers now have smart meters. In North America, smart grids are being installed in Austin, Boulder (CO) and Ontario.
Helping The Environment
As we have seen, by spreading out demand, power providers will be able to furnish the same amount of power with fewer plants. Apart from needing fewer plants, the plants will run more efficiently—just as a car that runs at constant speed is more fuel-efficient than one that stops and starts. The environmental benefits arising from these two factors—lower capacity at a given level of power supply, and more efficient power plants—are potentially huge, especially in countries such as China, India and Ukraine that currently generate electricity primarily from fossil fuels. It all adds up to less pollution, less release of CO2 and reduced global warming.
On the micro level, it is likely that customers will reduce their electricity consumption once they are given better information about electricity price. If your smart meter told you that using the oven for 30 minutes during dinner time has just cost you $10, you may want to change your cooking habits (by, for example, using your microwave, switching to natural gas or eating more raw foods), thereby indirectly realizing further environmental benefits.
Overcoming Technological and Social Hurdles
To collect this information, you would need to plug monitoring devices into your outlets and plug your appliances into them. Once installed, details of your electricity usage is reported to your power company so it can start its own demand-smoothing programs, similar to the early-bird plans of telephone companies. Designing these monitoring systems is the technological hurdle and it has been largely overcome.
Then there’s the social hurdle, related to prickly questions of privacy. Do you want your power company (or anyone with whom it shares information) to know that you were at home last night, what rooms you were in, whether you were watching TV or not, and what time you went to sleep? Many people won’t. Power companies and the government will have to convince people that only aggregate data will be collected and that no personal information will be used or shared.
It appears that the smart grid is a technology whose time has come. The remaining technological issues will soon be worked out. True, the social challenges may be harder to lick. But if we do resolve them in a way that protects personal privacy, the enormous cost savings and significant environmental benefits will make the effort well worthwhile.
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