A reader writes in with some tough questions concerning the costs and benefits of the "smart grid."
From Clarence Owens
I've been reading about and thinking about the "Smart Grid" for a while now and your Embedded Internet Design Editor's Note with the handy email address has given me a good opportunity to put down on screen what I've been thinking.
Briefly, I'm beginning to think this is to a great extent being picked up by the electronics industry and other business interests as the next great opportunity to get more business. Something like the hoopla over the 3D TV being the next great salvation of the TV and accessory manufacturers who are like most of us seeing the results of the global recession.
Sure, the electrical distribution system could use updating - I imagine there are still lots of relatively ancient computers still soldiering along in control centers across the country and sure, automatic meter reading would save a lot of money - for the utilities. Being able to pinpoint distribution failures and automatically reroute power while creating minimum disturbances to the overall grid would be extremely valuable - and apparently is an ability we currnetly have to only a limited extent.
A little of my background - I was software development manager for a manufacturer of large scale energy conservation and building monitoring systems for 10 years back in the 70's - 80's. Our systems were installed in automotive plants, very large department stores, and some other industrial and school locations. We generally did save our customers a lot of money - if they actually were willing to use the systems as they were designed and generally that also meant saving energy consumption. But many of these sites were being run in very, very wasteful ways when we arrived and the sizes of the facilities meant that we were seeing truly huge numbers of dollars being wasted every day. In one particular place we did not save much energy but because of the equipment on site (ice builders) and their two tier (night/day) electrical rate system we were able to achieve very large savings.
What I am reading in all of the electrical/electronic engineering publications is that the smart grid will give the utilities the ability to charge more for electrical energy but "let consumers know" how they can conserve *money* - but we'll have to allow remote control of our HVAC systems, refrigerators, washers, dryers, stoves, water heaters, etc. How any of this will conserve any significant amount of energy is beyond me. Current homes do not have significant heat/cool storage capacity so how can homeowners take much advantage of multi-tiered dynamic rate structures? What will be the costs to homeowners in new (of course more expensive) appliances, HVAC controls, total home networking infrastructure?
Looks a lot to me like the non-starter economics of buying a Prius to save money. Our customers way back when had from a 6 to 24 month payback period - of investments in the $500,000 range. How many years will it take the average homeowner to pay back the costs of the Smart Grid as applied to his/her monthly bill?
My house has a little radio receiver that our municipal utility can use to shut down our AC systems for 7 minutes out of the hour when the system power demand reaches 95% of capacity. Makes sense and does not ever effect our comfort since our systems never run more than 40 minutes out of the hour even in 95 degree weather. Does not save any energy of course but is good for the "grid" and quite painless. And very simple.
And would all of this equipment in homes actually help prevent a grid failure if a tornado, earthquake or well planned attack were to occur?
Just wanted to sound off a little. Thanks for reading this.
Uncle Sam asks consumers to weigh in on smart grid
Panel sees smart grid engineering challenges
Designing intelligent smart grid systems that promote energy efficiency
Getting basic utility meter designs ready for the Smart Grid