Smart things coming to power grid

-A A +A
By John Bartlit

Last month’s Super Bowl brought an old friend back from The Wizard of Oz. The scarecrow sang 15 seconds of “If I Only Had a Brain,” as he frolicked on high-tension wires.

The last half of the TV ad was a voice saying: “Smart grid technology from GE will make the way we distribute electricity more efficient, simply by making it more intelligent.”

“Smart grid” means a local or regional electricity supply network that has ability to make smart choices. Get used to the term. As with computer innards, we can sense the wonder easier than foretell where it leads.

Reasons to be smart start with lots of people turning lots of electric switches on during daylight and evening hours, then off all night long. Picture bees manning switchboards. The chain of large effects is surprising.

The nation’s power plants and transmission lines must be sized to send the maximum power needed for one moment in the entire year, as on a super-hot day. If not, we have “blackouts” or “brownouts.” Yet people use only a fraction of this peak power on most days and every night.

The result is power plants produce a fraction of the power they could in an entire year and power lines carry a fraction of the power they could for the year. Averaged over time, much of the capacity stands idle, because no one wants it just then.

All because people switch power on when they want it and off when they don’t.

If less power were used in the daytime and more shifted to late night, power plants and lines could meet our power needs far more efficiently, thus cheaply. Everyone gains from getting more good from plants and lines that are already built.

Please welcome the “smart meter.” The smart electric meter knows system efficiency goes up, and costs down if power use can be shifted from “prime time” to off-peak hours.

Today’s “half-wit” meters measure electricity consumed in a month. Smart meters record, or even transmit, the electricity amount and the time-segment in which it is used.

Presto chango. The price of costly prime-time power can be boosted. The price would be lowered for other hours. Night rates would be lowest.

Users decide their own uses. Some folks would start the dishwasher and clothes dryer at bedtime. The electric world starts to change.

Once logic becomes a tool, the possibilities are endless. The scarecrow has a brain.

In due course, electrical appliances will come with built-in logic. They will start at times we tell them. They can start at times renewable energy is available. Different sources, near and far, can be brought on- and off-line smoothly.

Energy use at each moment, and its source, can be displayed in the home, which affects habits. Hybrid cars show this feature now.

Ideas lead to ideas. The power company could switch off less critical home appliances to avert a local power shortage. The same goes when faults or outages are sensed in power lines, perhaps from terrorist acts.

If and when plug-in cars are attractive, more ideas are workable. Their battery charging would be mostly at night. Multitudes of charged batteries around cities, in cars and otherwise, provide capacity to store energy. No longer would all electricity have to be made at the time of use.

Prospects stretch into the distance.

Efficient systems cost money up front; savings come afterwards. Today’s witless meters cost $25. A smart meter costs $125 and up.

Many smart parts are needed in a smart grid. Smart substations cost more than simple ones to design and buy. Who will pay the difference?

Today’s trend is for many companies who gain from the smart grid to help pay for it. These include GE, who bought the Super Bowl ad. Others are the many makers of smart grid parts and systems software.

One fine day the future will come. When it does, we can reflect back on the time the clever scarecrow first explained the prospects. It was that Super Bowl Sunday, 2009.

John Bartlit is with New Mexco Citizens for Clen Air and Water