This is a good example that technical solutions are not typically energy solutions.
In the article “Becoming Part of the Process”, a new smart appliance technology is described. Considering the fact that prices in electric markets change every hour, appliances can be connected when energy prices are low, and disconnected when energy prices are high. An electronic instrument (a smart meter) transmits such prices to the appliances, so they can either automatically be turned on when low prices are registered or homeowners can do it manually. This technology could reduce grid peak demands and electricity bills, together with the “financial and politic costs of building additional power plants” to meet such peak demand. Although appliance functioning cannot depend on energy prices (such as A/C, and water heaters), “researchers have found that the power required to heat, cool and provide hot water for most households accounts for only about one-half of energy consumption”, according to the article.
This technology also has other benefits. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) registers negative prices due to demand curves and wind power production are not complementary. (In other words, energy demand goes up when wind does not blow). These smart meters could also indicate wind power production peaks, and some peak energy demand could be consumed in high wind generation periods. Thus, smart meters could not only reduce new peak power plant investments, but also reduce wind uncertainties in power grids, and help large scale penetration of renewables.
Though this technology presents the benefits described above, a large scale implementation of smart meters leads changes. First, most energy that houses consume is provided by retailers (which are “sales covering energy suppliers for residential, commercial, and industrial end-use purposes,” according to the Energy Information Administration, a statistical agency of the U.S. Department of Energy). Most retailers dispatch energy at fixed price, which is not compatible with the new technology. Fix energy prices is yet an issue under discussion. Second, the final decision is made by homeowners. The new technology require that homeowners be willing to change some of their habits (turn on the dishwasher or the washing machine at certain time), which might affect the quality of life of people who would complain if this technology were implemented in its automatic version.
Most energy issues involve different aspects, and this is not the exception. Generally, energy solutions depend on end-use entities (people), and most of the time technical advances must deal with people decisions. No one likes electricity transmission lines, nuclear power plants, damps, nuclear waste depositories, or routine changes, but all these things make people’s life possible. “In the world of tomorrow, we will become (must be) part of the process.”
Jim Pearce. 2009. “Becoming Part of the Process.” America’s 10 Energy Challenges. Oak Ridge National Laboratory Review. Volume 42, Number 2. Available: http://www.ornl.gov/info/ornlreview/v42_2_09/article06.shtml