How Will Consumers Benefit from the Smart Grid?

smart_gridGeorge Arnold from NIST gave a talk with that title over lunch today at the Smart Energy Summit in Austin. The benefits of the Smart Grid may be obvious at NIST but they’re a lot less so to consumers. In fact as Arnold noted wryly at the beginning, “Neither consumers nor utilities are quite sure why we’re doing this.” As the National Coordinator for Smart Grid Interoperability at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), it’s Arnold’s job to get the word out, which this talk definitely did.

The basic structure of the electric grid today is not much different than it was 100 years ago, other than the fact that it supplies AC rather than DC. Reasons for modernizing the grid include reducing costs; using more renewables; improving reliability; and supporting electric vehicle recharging.

The arguments on the cost side are compelling. Half of all U.S. coal plants are over 40 years old, and the cost of upgrading or replacing them is estimated at $560 billion by the year 2030. Smart Grid technology can reduce both peak and average electrical usage, reducing the required investment. There’s also considerable leeway for conservation. In the United States per capita annual electricity usage is 13,000 kWh. In Japan the per capita usage is 7900 kWh. By providing feedback to consumers on their usage patterns and enabling them to shift loads to nonpeak – and therefore lower cost – hours, smart grids provide the feedback loop to consumers both enabling and incentivizing them to conserve electricity.

The US has nowhere to go but up in the use of renewable energy sources. The vast majority of our electricity comes from coal-fired power plants. According to the Department of Energy renewables account for only 8.4% of US electrical generation, with Hydro contributing 5.95%, wind only 0.83% and solar even less.

On the reliability issue: the average U.S. utility customer experiences 125 min. of power outages per year; the average Japanese consumer only has to put up with that for 16 min. per year. The estimated cost of these power outages to the US economy according to the department energy is approximately $80 billion per year.

Turning to the demand side, where does the power go? Residential use accounts for 37%, commercial usage is 36% and industrial applications account for the remaining 27%. On the residential side 17% of your electricity goes to air conditioning, 15% to lights, 9% to heating and the balance to other devices. Getting your kids to turn off the lights will help, but only so much.

Arnold spent some time discussing smart appliances. Smart appliances will need home control systems in order to store your preferences for them; it won’t be up to the electric utility to determine when and which appliances you run. This event was heavily supported by numerous players in the smart appliance and home control markets, including the HomePlug Powerline Alliance, the HomeGrid Forum, the Z-Wave Alliance, the Wi-Fi Alliance and numerous semiconductor, system and utility providers. The stakeholders came to share ideas and hear what NIST had to say.

As well they might. As Arnold asked rhetorically, “With a dozen different communications interfaces, how do you do a national Smart Grid?” Good question. Right now just about every RF protocol you’ve heard of – and some you may not have – is vying to be part of the smart grid. Lacking any kind of standardization, and with plenty of money invested in proprietary solutions, utilities are understandably reluctant to move forward with Smart Grid implementations, and consumers are at least as confused.

NIST has now finished reviewing the various protocols and is now passing that information back to industry to work out standards. In Arnold’s words, “Things are about to become very contentious and argumentative” as standards are hashed out. As Bismarck once remarked, “If you like laws and sausages, you should never watch either one being made.” The same certainly applies to electronics standards.

There actually is real progress being made, and we’ll report on that shortly. Meanwhile don’t despair, the Smart Grid really is happening. It’s just not going to be happening next week.

About John Donovan

Writer, editor, Dad
This entry was posted in Clean energy, Energy Efficiency, Smart Grid and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply