There’s been much buzz about the potential of “smart grid” projects wherein people’s homes and businesses are outfitted with meters that let them know the price of or demand for electricity at any given time of day.
But some energy experts say a disproportionate amount of attention and resources have been given to such “advanced metering initiatives” (AMI) and argue that the term “smart grid” is a misnomer for such systems.
That’s because to reduce energy demand and improve efficiency, advanced meters still depend on consumer behavior and decisions.
These experts say that a more viable way to improve the grid’s efficiency, reduce energy demand and facilitate renewable energy is to actually make the grid itself smarter, by investing in grid-based technology including sensors, routers, switches and storage systems that allow the grid to automatically adjust or redirect electricity flows in real time and to keep voltage levels stable, without human intervention.
That way the grid becomes “self-healing” and able to “make decisions” — for example to send electricity down alternate routes when a transmission line is downed in a storm or to reduce other flows when someone’s rooftop solar panels suddenly send a burst of energy onto the grid. Such smart grids are more conducive to distributed small wind and solar generation, since they can better handle two-way flows of electricity and make overall adjustments to take advantage of electricity flowing from rooftop solar panels or small wind turbines.
“Meters have a role to play: customer choice, knowing when to turn the power on and off, people can change their habits and choose to use power not at peak times,” said Mike Edmonds, vice president of strategic solutions for the S&C Electric Company which sells products and services related to grid automation. “But I don’t think of (advanced metering initiatives) as smart grids. That has nothing to do with the grid.”
While automation technologies are relatively common on the high voltage lines that move electricity long distances, the “distribution grids” of lines 69 kV or less that deliver electricity to individual homes and businesses are typically not smart.
“If the last 20 miles is dumb, you have a dumb grid, no matter how smart the rest of the grid is,” Edmonds said.
Grid-based, automated smart grid technology is already widely available and is the norm in many countries in Asia and Europe. A number of U.S. utilities have invested significantly in such technologies, but the U.S. lags behind other countries in part because of the patchwork of regulatory commissions, state laws and different types of utilities which shape decisions about the grid.
Smart meter programs across the U.S. have gotten significant public attention and support from residents, elected officials, utility executives and others over the past few years, and various programs have received government support including under the 2009 American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA)’s $3.4 billion Smart Grid Investment Grant program.
A July 2012 U.S. Department of Energy progress report [PDF] on the ARRA grants showed that almost three times as much money has been awarded to advanced meter programs and the related customer feedback systems as has been spent on electric distribution and transmission projects.
“In retrospect, the stimulus funding may have concentrated a bit too much on smart meters and a bit too little on the smart grid,” said Jesse Berst, founder and chief analyst ofSmartGridNews.com. “Part of this came from the belief that smart meters were more ‘shovel ready.’ And part of it from the belief that consumers would care most about the choice and control available from smart meters.
“As it turns out, many consumers care most of all about reliability.”
AMI programs have also encountered opposition from small but vocal groups who think the meters compromise their privacy or independence or even harm their health with radiation. On Oct. 4, rallies were held in 35 cities – most of them sparsely attended – in a “National Action Day to Stop Smart Meters,” timed to coincide with the international GridWeek conference hosted by government agencies and trade groups.
Likely more important than opposition based on questionable assertions, smart meter programs have often turned out to be more costly and difficult to implement than originally expected. For example, Chicago’s program is in jeopardy because of funding gaps and battles with state regulators over rate-setting.
And depending on the situation, the potential cost savings facilitated by smart meters may not be large enough to motivate most residents to take significant action.
“If I told my wife I could save $2 a month by putting the dishwasher on in the middle of the night it would be a very short conversation,” Edmonds said. “The challenge with relying on the consumer is the consumers have to be actively engaged in changing their habits. All that customer engagement is hard when the customer doesn’t really care that much.”
Grid-based technology, by contrast, can’t reduce the amount of electricity people decide to use at a given time of day. It can’t stop someone from charging their electric vehicle or doing loads of laundry on a sweltering afternoon, when energy demand skyrockets, expensive peaker plants fire up and transmission lines risk overloading.