So Good, Too Fast, Smart Grids

“Green energy’’ was very notable in the 2009 recovery act of president Obama’s administration. The stimulus package projected the determination of the government to invest a tremendous amount of budget on sustainable and renewable energy, achieving higher rates of efficiency in energy production and exploitation [1]. Among all items of this package, the decision to dedicate billions of dollars to ”smart grids” and modernization of electric power infrastructure has been very debatable. The term smart grid refers to the use of intelligent techniques to record, collect and monitor the amount of power consumption by the users of the power grid in real time, in order to make the generation and distribution of high voltage electricity more efficient [2].

A key component to such a smart system, in addition to an integrated network of wireless sensors and data collection, is the participation of consumers; They would store excessive power in their electric cars (and thus avoid waste of energy when production is higher than demand) or would reinforce the network through sustainable sources (such as solar rooftops, or wind turbines). Consequently, as the department of energy reflects the President’s goal, by the year 2035,80% of the overall generated electricity would be from clean sources rather than fossil fuels [3]. The smart grid thus also motivates renewable energy production, and creates a very wide-spread market for wind and solar energy technologies (i.e. potentially every household would be a customer).

Despite the strong support of the government, the smart grid project has not been exempt from criticism. There are serious objections to possible drawbacks and harms (currently latent due to fans propaganda or lack of clarity in several technical and policy based issues related to smart grids) that such giant modernization can cause. Some of these potential drawbacks are security issues (both at a privacy level and threatening major power supplies in general), lack of clarity in the policies and standards, overpriced and unfair energy prices, major health and environmental concerns as a result of excessive wireless and electromagnetic exposure, and so on [4]. That these objections are valid or not is experts call, or the judgment of time at this point. The point I want to make here is that perhaps there has been too much rush in the whole process. In many aspects smart grid is thought to be similar to internet. But there is major difference in the realizations of these two projects and their endorsement by government. The United States government’s support was instrumental in the development of World Wide Web as well. However, back in 1960’s, when the initial projects on data networks were initialized, the dreams were not as ambitious as a global internet. The milestone for internet was the ARPANET project which was contracted for only $1 million in the late 1960s [5]. The complete internet technology was developed (even conceptually) within the next two decades, and after many other pieces of networking and computer technology were invented (such as unix systems, Email systems, TCP/IP, DNS, etc)[6]. In addition, the funding and development was not completely monopolized by the US government (there were similar networks and advances in Europe as well, and the research and development was very distributed in the US). In contrast, the statistics on the smart grid funds are quiet different. The Energy-Independence and Security Act of 2007 dedicated $400 million to smart grid projects for the years of 2008-2012 alone, and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 set aside $11 billion to construct a large scale smart grid [7]. Major tech companies such as GE, Cisco, Siemens and IBM and several start-ups have already received millions of dollars of governmental aids to build smart grid utilities and capabilities [8]. This raises another criticism: If the smart grid does not realize expectations or face unforeseen failures, maintenance costs, renewals or costly updates (keep in mind that to reach its full capacity it might take to 2035 or later) the losses would be tremendous. Even the problems with internet have not been fully resolved yet. Given these considerations, would it not have been better if the project was contracted out in smaller phases, and in a less centralized fashion?





[5] Nathan S. Newman, “Net Loss: Government, Technology and the Political Economy of Community in the Age of the Internet”, Ph.D. Sociology, University of California, Berkeley 1998






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3 responses to “So Good, Too Fast, Smart Grids

  1. jones1808

    You make a good point about privacy potentially being an issue – utilities would have enough information to be able to discern what you turn on in your house and when, and probably even match it to specific brands of appliances based on their consumption profile. This could be used to create a very detailed pattern of your behavior in the supposed privacy of your home.
    I don’t know what you mean by the smart grid being a security issue – the ability of a smart grid made up of a diverse and geographically diffuse portfolio of energy sources that can be automatically balanced or adjusted based on load requirements or extenuating circumstances is the very definition of a more secure grid. I can’t find any evidence of attacks on US energy infrastructure in the past. If you refer to computer access to the grid, this is an issue that will be addressed with proper firewalls.
    Not every government research project proves fruitful, but the immediate energy savings that basic, non-invasive, smart grid technologies will provide through simple energy efficiency measures will assuredly cover the government’s $11 billion investment. Our annual electricity bill is around $378 billion after all, and a larger roll-out will realize larger savings.

  2. shaastra09

    As you rightly mentioned, smart grids are an essential component in getting the renewable energy sources on-the-grid. While we have an aggressive goal to have 80% electricity production from renewable energy, the development of smart grids needs to keep pace with that. Considering the analogy with inhternet, back inh the 1960’s there was nothing to lose by not having the internet, whereas presently, c.30% energy in buildings is wasted. Hence, the aggressive push ofr smart grids is, I believe, completely justified. Apart from the US government, there have been smartgrid deployments in Europe, like the one by Enel SpA in Italy.

    I completely agree with the stage-wise implementation of smart-grids, starting with the development of local smart grids, as has been done in Austin, partially. Also, deployment of microgrids is a key to get the small electricity generation points on to the grid.

    The issue of privacy is a serious one, and taking analogy with the internet, its like the internet provider deciding whether the site you are watching is appropriate and justifies the bandwidth used. However, this can be solved to a certain extent with local regulation, ie. decentralized control of usage where the information of every point of usage need not be communicated to the utility provider, and only the local aggregate information is provided. In this way, individual privacy is not compromised.

    Although there are criticisms concerning use of smart-grids, the fact of energy shortage outweighs anything that comes in the way of smart-grid deployment and the only solution is to find better solutions to address the criticisms. Smart grids are here to stay!


  3. sevengroove

    This is a good introduction to smart grid technology, and what it entails from a technology and policy point of view. To answer your question about phasing the introduction of smart grid, you don’t have to look too far from home for one of the success stories of smart grid implementation: the Pecan Street Project in Austin.

    Pecan Street Inc. is actually headquartered at UT Austin, and focuses on R&D for advanced energy management systems. [1] Their Pecan Street Project, which is based in the Mueller community, is a great example of how a combination of progressive policies and emerging technologies can shock the existing utility infrastructure system with innovation (pun absolutely intended). The primary intent of this pilot project was to demonstrate emerging smart grid technologies in a real-world setting. Apart from the cooperation of the neighborhood’s residents in volunteering their usage statistics for research, the project was jump-started with a $10.4 million grant from the US Department of Energy, matched with another $14.5 million from other public/private sources. [2] [3]

    I had the privilege of listening to a talk by Brewster McCracken, the founder and executive director of Pecan Street Inc., for one of my classes. He showed us compelling evidence of how the technologies they are testing at PSP will reduce costs for both the consumers and utility companies. A graph he shared with us showed that the price of energy for utilities skyrockets during summer afternoons in Texas to levels that are 12 – 13 times the cost price. [4] This time of the day coincidentally happens to be when solar panels work the best. I hope that examples like this will accelerate the adoption of technologies that are cleaner, and perhaps consequently lead to progressive policies that make it easier to do so.

    [4] Brewster McCracken, in-class lecture

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