TH: What’s the biggest barrier with smart grids right now? Is it utilities not latching on? Is the technology too new? Is it that not enough people understand what it is?
There are multiple barriers to complete smart grid roll-outs at the moment. The biggest one, as far as I can see is money!
The smart meter roll-out alone costs in the order of $150 per household just for the device. Then there is the installation engineer on top of that. And the software to back it up. In terms of the software, remember that presently utilities take maybe one meter reading a month. When they start taking readings from smart meters they will be taking up to 2880 per 30-day month when they are taking 15 minute readings (or 720 for hourly readings). If they have 1 million customers they go from 1m meter readings a month to 720m per month (or 2,880m). That’s a massive jump in the amount of incoming data which needs to be stored, queried for billing, and held for however long.
A lot of the software to handle this is still being developed and utilities, being very conservative, don’t want to be guinea pigs. And newer technologies tend to have a price premium.
Circling back to the price for the utilities. If they have 1 million customers, they are looking at spending hundreds of millions on the smart grid roll-out (smart meters, communications infrastructure for smart meters, back-end database for data, back-office apps for using the data – customer care, billing, etc.).
One of the big deals about smart grids is that it will help us reduce our consumption – from the utilities perspective, they should invest these large sums of money so we can reduce the amount we purchase from them? You can start to see the difficulties.
TH: What’s the most apparent way a smart grid will change the average person’s daily life? What about the most important way?
You know, the best way a smart grid could change the average person’s life is ‘not a jot’ – apart from reduced utility bills.
Utilities are talking up demand response programs and how they will be able to come into your house or apartment and turn down your air conditioner (for example) at times when supply is short and demand is high. This is a top-down approach destined to piss off customers and will in no way get buy-in from a skeptical public.
Far preferable would be some kind of automated demand response, completely controlled by the consumer, so far example as a homeowner I’d set my dishwasher at 8 PM to come on at 5c per kWh or 5 AM, whichever comes first. As long as the dishes are done by 7 AM, I’m happy. Similarly with other devices. Plenty of loads in the home are movable. You don’t care when your hot water is heated, as long as it is hot when you need it hot. A well lagged (insulated) boiler would mean you could heat it when electricity is cheap, and then use it whenever.
By the way, totally counter-intuitive but cheaper electricity has a higher renewable percentage so actively selecting for cheaper electricity means you are actively selecting for electricity with a higher percentage of renewables in the mix. How does this work?
Well, electricity prices on the wholesale market are very volatile. Consumers are protected from this but electricity prices can fluctuate by orders of magnitude within a 24-hour period. Price is set by good old supply and demand. Demand fluctuates according to day of week, time of day and by season. As the price drops on the wholesale market, it becomes less attractive for more expensive generators (the ones with start-up costs for their generation – the fossil fuel burners, for example) to stay selling in so they drop out. The renewables, on the other hand, are price takers. They don’t have significant start-up costs for generation so they stay in the market no matter what price they get. So, as the price drops, more and more fossil fuel generators drop out and the percentage of renewables in the mix increases!
TH: Other than this change in demand and timing, how will the smart grid help us incorporate renewables into the grid?
Utilities are used to dealing with a situation where their generation (gas coal, oil) is steady and predictable in its output and their customers’ demand is unsteady but generally predictable (demand tomorrow = demand this day last year +1-2%, say).
For various reasons utilities are having to move to a situation where they need to incorporate more renewables into their mix. Renewables generation is not steady and is only slightly predictable (via weather forecasts, for example). Because electricity has to be used as it is generated (can’t be stored, generally), the more unstable the generation, the more unstable the grid.
How can you fix this? Well, one way would be to align the demand with the supply.
How do you do that? …