The coming smart grid, part three: the future

Published Tuesday, March 5, 2013 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal.

A fully functional smart grid holds great potential, but there are also some concerns.  Here’s an overview of both.

Beyond smart meters
A true smart grid is much more than smart meters and time-of-day pricing.  The next step will be appliances and other electricity-using equipment that will be able to communicate directly with the power grid, and then automatically operate at the time of day when power rates are lowest.  In other words, you might ready a load in your dishwasher but the dishwasher will only start itself when rates are cheapest, such as in the middle of the night.  The same principle could be used for hot water heating, laundry and even space heating.  Thermal storage units are heaters that run during the night but store their heat until morning, when we want it. 

In many developing countries, an overloaded power grid results in rolling blackouts, where power is cut to everyone on a rotational basis to prevent the whole grid from failing.  Not nice.  On the other hand, a true smart grid can enable individual, non-essential loads to be cut remotely by the power company for short periods of time to prevent a larger overload and power failure.  For example, in warm climates, power peaks occur at midday because of air conditioners – so a smart grid might enable the power company to remotely turn off air conditioners for 15 minutes on a rotational basis.  A 15 minute interruption would barely affect comfort levels, but it would sure help manage peak demand. 

In NB, peaks happen on cold winter mornings so the same approach could be used to turn heaters off for 15 minute intervals.  Some people get uncomfortable about the power company having such control over their usage.  The solution would be voluntary participation coupled with a well-designed power rate structure that would provide a strong financial incentive to participate.

A fully functional smart grid would enable a utility to make better use of intermittent renewables like solar and wind.  In Ontario, an incentive called a feed-in tariff rewards people for installing solar and wind energy, and then supplying that to the power grid.  Imagine if you could send the power company a monthly bill, rather than the other way around.

Finally, a true smart grid will enable widespread adoption of electric vehicles, with charging taking place mostly during the night.  A bonus: thousands of batteries in parked cars could be used to feed power back into the grid during periods of peak demand.  They’d recharge automatically as soon as the peak was past.  Batteries could be set to never drain below a critical level so that drivers would never be stranded.  Again, a well-designed rate structure would make electric car owners want to participate.  Another bonus: thousands of car batteries would enable the capture and storage of power from intermittent sources like wind and solar.

Concerns and challenges
Smart grids are not without questions, however.  Smart meters cost money – who will pay, and how?  The conventional answer seems to be that costs will be blended into power rates, but will be more than offset by the savings created.

Some wonder whether smart meters can actually deliver the benefits proponents promise.  It’s fair to say that they are just a first step, and their full benefits will only be realized over time with the adoption of more renewable energy, smart appliances and electric vehicles.  As well, consumer education and awareness are critical.

Finally, because many smart meters use wireless technology, some worry about their effects on human health.  In fact, everyday items like microwave ovens and cell phones generate far more microwaves than smart meters.  Research shows that a 30 minute cell phone conversation is equivalent to 20 years of exposure to smart meter frequencies.

A brave, bold future
We all depend on power, but it’s clear that today’s grid needs a rethink.  A smart grid represents the change we need, for an efficient, reliable and sustainable electrical future.