SAN MATEO, Calif. Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore swept into Silicon Valley for two appearances on Thursday. In between takes of guest appearances on TV's "30 Rock," the Nobel prize winner stumped for the smart electric grid and helped hand out awards to technologists honored for their work in social justice.
At the Greenbeat conference in San Mateo, Gore made the case for the need to move to a smart grid as one of the key requirements for combating global warming. An open, digital and networked grid will open the door to the broad use of solar, wind and other renewable energy sources and raise energy efficiency, Gore said.
The smart grid "will serve multiple goals and pay for itself over not many years," Gore added, noting that the average age of a transformer on the U.S. grid today is 42 years old. One utility manager talked about how his company recent upgraded a gas meter in Cincinnati that was originally built in the late 1800's.
In addition, smart grids will "empower a new collection of devices in much same way the Internet allowed explosion of Net-ready devices," said Gore.
Indeed at Greenbeat, Ed Lu, special project director for Google.org, talked about the company's PowerMeter software being used in a wide range of home devices to let customers access data about their energy use. In a video, Lu took questions about the project.
Smart grid makes terrific sense for utilities that want to better control and manage their power grid. However, nobody's really made a convincing case for extending it into the home.
I live in Boulder, CO, the first US city actually wired for Smart Grid (by Xcel, our electric utility, under a $100 million pilot program which is roughly $1000 per city resident). Each home is now connected to a specially installed fiber network, and smart meters have been put on each home, but so far little else is happening beyond a few demonstration homes. The problem is, as usual, the "last mile", in this case extending it into the home. No appliances or converter boxes with Smart Grid capability exist beyond prototypes. As the article says, standards are still in the proposal stage.
Even if the technology was here now, why would I want to pay for it? I'm not about to replace a perfectly good appliance for one that has built-in Smart Grid capability. And even if converter boxes get down to $50 or so each, it would take an awfully long time to make that back in cost savings. Then there's the $1000 per capita installation fee. That's currently being paid for by Xcel and its partners, but in the small print there's a provision to charge the consumers for it if the program works and is kept in place (as it should be). For the eventual US build-out, that price will have to be charged over time directly to consumers.
If I want to know when electricity is cheap to run my washer/dryer, I can just look it up on Xcel's website. If I need to know how much power my home entertainment center uses, I can just connect it to a $25 Kill-A-Watt meter to find out. Doing this on my major appliances did give me savings of about 15% overall year-over-year without significantly affecting my lifestyle. But second-by-second Smart Grid metering would only give me marginal savings beyond what I've already done.
As the second video suggests, there are big privacy concerns. Google may be pure of heart, but many people here in Boulder already want electricity priced by *use* as well as by time of day. In other words, a KWH used for A/C should cost, say, twice as much as a KWH used to power a TV, even when consumed at the same time. These people want the city to do that kind of social engineering via taxes if Xcel does not do it via pricing. There's some legal precedence for this in that Xcel currently reports each residence's power use to the city so the city can tax each residence on consumption for its program to get the city "Kyoto compliant".
Technical details and building infrastructure are easy. Economics and social concerns are much, much harder. Don't expect Smart Grid to be fully implemented for decades to come.