Understanding the Smart Grid – my TreeHugger interview


Photo credit Lee Jordan
Jaymi Heimbuch contacted me recently to ask if I’d agree to be interviewed for a TreeHugger article she was planning to write on Smart Grids. “Love to”, I said.

Jaymi sent on the questions, I replied and today she posted the interview on TreeHugger.

Here are the questions and my answers:

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? Well, as supply and demand shift, they affect price on the wholesale market. So, if you expose people to the real price, they will modify their behaviour to select for when price is lowest (when electricity is in lower demand (or when their is a higher percentage of renewables as I mentioned earlier)). This is demand response.

Now, however you do it, if you roll out a demand response program, you are aligning demand with supply. The more you do that, the more stable you make the grid. The more stable the grid, the more renewables that can be added to it.

TH: Many people in the US are concerned with information privacy – they want to own their energy usage data and don’t want utilities handing it over to governments and third parties. What are some of the steps both businesses and people can take to appease people’s concerns?

Let me tell you, people in the EU are far more sensitive to data privacy issues that in the US! Honestly, on this question, I’m not sure there is a good answer though.

Consider your mobile phone. It is a tracking device. As long as it is on, it knows where you are 24×7 (and tells your mobile provider). Mobile phone records have been used to both exonerate and help convict people in recent years.

Now consider people working in the call center of your mobile phone company. How much are they paid per annum? If I offer to slip one of them $2k do you think I could have access to your movements for the last 6 months? Similarly for your energy consumption data soon.

The best way to protect against this is legislation. Legislate to keep data private and have very heavy fines for the utilities (and mobile phone co.s) for breaches. This will incent them to put processes in place to track inappropriate accesses to people’s data (and disable export functions, etc.).

TH: What’s your favorite saying about the smart grid, or a quote or insight that you always remember?

I spoke to Dr Monika Sturm a couple of years back. Monika is director of Siemens Center of Competency for smart meters – their research and development facility. She told me that the output from smart meters is extremely granular. So much so, that it is possible to look at the output of smart meters and identify all the devices which make up the reading. So by looking at the output from my smart meter, it would be possible to see that I have a 2008 Philips 37″ LCD TV, and a 2006 Indesit BHZ model fridge and a …. You get the idea.

This plays back to the privacy question you asked earlier but it also offers an alternative revenue option for utilities who are looking at people reducing their consumption. It goes something like this:

I get an email from my utility saying

Dear Tom,
we notice that you have an Indesit BHZ fridge. This is currently costing you ?25 per month to run. We have a newer, more energy efficient model on special this month for ?10 per month. It will cost you roughly ?10 per month to operate so overall you will save ?5 per month if you avail of this offer.

If you sign up, by simply replying to this email, we will have our partner install the fridge by the end of the week and we can take away your old fridge for you, for no extra charge.

Or similar.

TH: Anything you want TH readers to be sure to know about?

The problems associated with smart meters in places like Bakersfield were entirely predictable. [Editor’s note: Bakersfield residents felt the new smart meters from Pacific Gas & Electric led to inflated energy bills. It resulted in a lawsuit.] Utilities are not used to communicating with their customers. They do so only when it is time to send the monthly bill. With the advent of smart grids, utilities will need to be in far closer communication with their customers. If people’s consumption is approaching a threshold which could push them into a higher band, send them a text/email/IM/Tweet/all of the above (or whatever the customers preferred method of communication is) to let them know. If the customer’s consumption is lowest in their block/zipcode/subdivision/whatever, let them know, etc.

Communications is not something utilities have not traditionally needed to invest any time in. However as Bakersfield has shown, it will be a vital skill for utilities in the future, especially as the markets open up and people have a choice of who to buy their electricity from.

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  1. says

    You are talking about a demand response program, i.e. about making consumers sensitive to the price they pay for their electricity.

    What about combining that with a supply response program, i.e. telling distributed producers how much they can expect to be credited for any electricity they produce at various times of the day. Of course this would imply graded pricing for privately produced electricity, depending on relative abundance or scarcity of power in the grid. It would – in time – influence the choice of generation equipment, and perhaps even of private electricity storage, so the grid could become responsive to momentary conditions, not just from the demand side but also from the point of view of production.

  2. Alyssa Farrell says

    Is there a way that the data from the “smart grid” can help utilities work with customers to reduce collections debt? There are millions of dollars of write-offs each year from utilities, which impacts their shareholders as well as available cash on hand to make capital investments, but I have to think that customer risk models can be improved with data about consumption. What do you think?

    • says

      Very interesting question Alyssa and one that software companies developing CIS solutions for the Smart Grid are looking into. I don’t have specific data on solutions atm but next time I’m talking to them, I’ll certainly bring it up.