Dear EarthTalk: What is the so-called "smart grid" I've been hearing about, and how can it save energy and money? -- Larry Burger, Litchfield, CT
America's electricity grid is built upon what many consider to be an antiquated principle: Make large amounts of electricity and have it always available to end users whether they need it or not. It's much like the way most home water heaters keep water constantly hot even when it is not being used. It is also a strictly one-way relationship, with utilities supplying power to end users, but not vice-versa.
The smart grid concept is predicated on a two-way flow of energy -- and information -- between electricity generators and end users. The system not only delivers power to end users as needed, depending on demand; it also gathers power from end users that produce their own -- homes and businesses that generate solar, wind or geothermal power themselves -- when they have more than they need.
Some 42 states, and Washington, DC, already require utilities to have systems in place to buy excess energy generated by their customers. But, writes journalist Michael Prager in E - The Environmental Magazine, "because they can't know in real time that power is coming in, utilities generate as much as they would have anyway." He adds that when information flows both ways, end users will be able to send information back to the grid specifying how much power they need and when they will need it. They'll also be able to communicate when they have excess power available to upload to the grid.
On the forefront of research into the feasibility of the smart grid on a large scale is the Future Renewable Electric Energy Delivery and Management (FREEDM) Systems Center, established in 2008 by the National Science Foundation and headquartered at North Carolina State University. FREEDM is partnering with universities, industry and national laboratories in 28 states and nine countries to develop technologies they say will "revolutionize the nation's power grid and speed renewable electric-energy technologies into every home and business." So far, some 60 utilities, alternative energy startups, electrical equipment manufacturers and other firms have signed onto the new partnership.
One such utility, Colorado-based Xcel Energy, has even begun to put smart grid technology into practice on a trial basis for a small percentage of its customer base. The utility has spent some $100 million outfitting 35,000 homes and businesses in and around the city of Boulder with automation and communications capabilities to enable two-way communication of electricity needs.
Xcel won't have enough data to assess energy and cost savings until early 2010, but analysts are optimistic that the utility's costly experiment will reap benefits down the road for consumers, utilities and the environment. Indeed, environmentalists and economists alike have high hopes that widespread implementation of such "intelligent" systems could help usher in a new age of unprecedented energy efficiency, emissions reductions and cost savings around the United States and beyond.
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The "Smart Grid" turns your meter (which measures the flow of electricity from the main grid into your private grid [your house]) into a computer that does several key things:
1) Tells the power company how much electricity you are using in real time. This lets the power company be more exact with how much power to put into the grid, reducing the amount they need to "overshoot" in order to prevent brown-outs.
2) Allows you to know, likely on an inside monitor or online, how much energy you are using in real time (and likely in the unit of energy everyone understands: $$$$). This should, of course, encourage conservation, since almost every american will play the "Turn on all the lights" followed by "Turn off all the lights" game to see how much $$$$ they really can save.
3) It allows the power company to charge for electricity based on the TIME OF DAY. Since some power sources are constant and cannot be tuned (nuclear), or are consistantly periodical (solar), electricity is cheapest to produce at a constant level 24 hours a day (or has a cheap spot in the middle of the day). Also, our electrical useage increases and decreases based on the time of day (very little usage at 3:57 in the morning). Charging more in peak times and less in off hours does several things:
A) It makes electrical generation more even as people put off tasks (dishwashing, cloths drying, charging their plug in car, etc) to the cheap hours with simple timing mechanisms. This makes electrical generation cheaper, reducing maximium capacity for a higher minimium capacity.
B) It reduces CO2 emissions, since the forms of electrical production most commonly "tuned" through the day are fossil fuel based, since reduing fuelbased methods does not waste any potential generation (unlike, say, reducing hydro generation)
4) The smart grid removes the meter reader. Fewer employees and fewer trucks means less cost and greater billing accuracy.(Many areas are already only metered once a year due to these costs. The customers are charged an estimated rate based on past usuage monthly, which is verified and fixed after the anual meter check.)
I generally appove of this effort, but there are some things to think about.
The idea of selling back electricity to the power company is appealing ( and now generally mandated),but it has its drawbacks.
-- If you actually become a net producer of electricity, you are forcing the power company to buy power at a retail rate.
-- Homeowners producing power are (currently) under no restrictions as to when they produce the power. Yes, the power companies will KNOW about it, but they won't be able to control it.
The other thing to consider is the reliability of electric power. Wintertime without electricity is not a good thing ( umm, your gas furnace won't run). Implementation must be done carefully to preserve the reliabilty of this resource.
There's so much hype about what a 'smart grid' will do for the utility industry, but what so many people fail to recognize is the fundamentals of providing electric energy.
Compounding the system will be the evolution of distributed generation (DG) - this will only serve to increase the complexity of the delivery process, and is very doubtful that any savings will be realized.
Grids will still have to be designed to deliver the maximum amount of power that might be demanded by the customer, under worse-case scenarios, i.e. no DG available from the customer. If those times are few and far between, the grid will be overbuilt and thus not used economically.
True savings of energy will only be realized if people do two things: conserve (i.e. use less), and avoid straining the grid during peak load conditions. This is called demand-side management and is most effective through penalty pricing schemes.
If one does the math on the Xcel project, they're spending almost $3,000 per account to install a smart grid. The ability to realize a payback in energy savings sufficient to recoup this investment is highly skeptical.
Smart metering on the other hand is readily available today, is already being widely used, and can provide time-of-use pricing and even demand-side management capabilities. Unfortunately, politicians have found a new word that gets them nation-wide attention and are using it profusely with unfounded claims of world savings. But in reality, it's likely they don't have the first clue as to what it really means.
I'd like to see a PPX Proposition on this. Like a projected time frame to get a certain number of these systems installed. And NS Sparky's right. It would be terribly inefficient to be constantly changing the generator out puts-and starting them up and shutting them down-processes that would occur with the proposed real time monitoring.
"America's electricity grid is built upon what many consider to be an antiquated principle: Make large amounts of electricity and have it always available to end users whether they need it or not. It's much like the way most home water heaters keep water constantly hot even when it is not being used. It is also a strictly one-way relationship, with utilities supplying power to end users, but not vice-versa."
This paragaraph by E/The Environmental Magazine is totally wrong about how electrical energy is supplied to users.
Here is how it really works.
When a user turns on an electrical device, the power company has to generate the energy required right then. There is no extra power "always available".
If the power company did not generate the power right then the system frequency would move lower.
The same process works in reverse. When a user turns off an electrical device, the power company generates less. If they did not generate less the system frequency would rise.
The system frequency in the USA is 60 cycles per second.
The "not vice-versa." is also wrong. If you could generate you own power and had the capability to generate more than your home could use, and if connected to the electrical grid of your area, you could generate the extra and sell it to the power company.
If not connected to the electrical grid, you would be a stand alone generator of power and could only generate what you use.