Smart Grid Take-Down

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William Tucker argues that current green Smart Grid is more fable than fact over at the Energy Collective. As he explains: 

The true "smart grid" will be a digitalized distribution system that conveys real-time information.  Incorporating remote wind and solar, on the other hand, will require an upgraded grid, something entirely different.  Our present 345-kilovolt, AC transmission wires can't do it without unacceptable line losses.  We will need to rebuild to 765 kV DC system – something that could take decades and easily cost several trillion dollars.

One has very little to do with the other.  However they are often described as the same thing. 

And what about those smart meters that aim to get people to wash their dishes and clothes at midnight when electricity is cheaper? 

Getting people to redistribute their energy consumption sounds suspiciously like those perennial suggestions for relieving rush-hour traffic by staggering work hours.  It may look good on paper, but most people still like to get up in the morning, eat breakfast, work 9-to-5, come home, have dinner, watch some TV and go to bed.  And so rush hour traffic – and patterns of electrical consumption – will probably remain much the same…

…the prospect that a smart grid is somehow going to save huge amounts of energy and pave the way for a solar future is an illusion.  At best it will make electricity a bit cheaper and perhaps shave 5 to 10 percent off the anticipated growth in consumption.  But the smartest of smart grids can't distribute power that isn't already there.

Read the whole insightful column here.

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  1. YOU’RE NOT HOPING HARD ENOUGH OR CHANGING QUICK ENOUGH BALKO!!! GREEDY RACIST!!!

  2. Definitely a DC grid would be more convenient for incorporating solar power.

    That still doesn’t resolve the storage problem.

    But a massive infrastructure build to that effect would end up being a huge waste of money. Technology changes too much, so the grid would be obsolete by the time it got built.

    I would think that the more likely way it would happen would be to have some small businesses set up local DC grids of their own, and experiment with what works. That’ll allow the technology to evolve through competition.

  3. Change Balko to Bailey. Or don’t. It’s funnier that way.

  4. Nothing the contemporary left is doing today will do more long term damage than their continued assault on our electricity grid. A modern economy is basically a mechanism for using electricity to turn dirt into useful things. No electricity, no economy.

    California’s long slide down hill began circa 1980 when planners at the height of the energy crisis when state planner decided that electricity demand would be flat in the future and that as a consequence, California would need no new power plants. A state once awash in power, now has the highest energy cost in West by a far bit and the state is loosing manufacturing jobs.

    The left wants to put the entire country in the same bind by their centrally planned, looks-good-on-paper-lets-force-everyone-to-do-it, impractical plans. 30-40 years down the road we’re going to be scavenging electricity form the wind and sun while China and India simply gorge on dense, reliable nuclear power.

    We’re making life and death decisions, whose damage will not be felt until decades down the road, on the basis of the emotional appeal images of children in frolicking in flower filled meadows. That’s not a way to create a power grid.

  5. Haven’t read the article yet but these exerpts gets some basic terms wrong.

    Our present 345-kilovolt, AC transmission wires can’t do it without unacceptable line losses. We will need to rebuild to 765 kV DC system – something that could take decades and easily cost several trillion dollars.

    The applachian/great lakes core have plenty of 765kV *AC* lines (although most are 365 kV). The highest voltage on DC lines is currently 500 KV (most are 300 kV). The proposals for new ‘high tech’ high voltage for DC are all nominally 800kV, not 765 kV. The bulk of the new transmission capacity proposed by the likes of AEP (still going strong) and T Boone (not so much anymore) for central plains wind farms are all 765 *AC* lines.

    Getting people to redistribute their energy consumption sounds suspiciously like those perennial suggestions for relieving rush-hour traffic by staggering work hours.

    No, it’s peak pricing; like charging more for roads during rush hour. Which is a rather key component of reason’s transportation policy, or so I thought.

  6. No, it’s peak pricing; like charging more for roads during rush hour.

    What Kolohe Said

  7. Getting people to redistribute their energy consumption sounds suspiciously like those perennial suggestions for relieving rush-hour traffic by staggering work hours. It may look good on paper, but most people still like to get up in the morning, eat breakfast, work 9-to-5, come home, have dinner, watch some TV and go to bed. And so rush hour traffic – and patterns of electrical consumption – will probably remain much the same…

    I dunno about his reasoning — throwing in a load of laundry or running your dish washer aren’t things that area hard to do at non-peak times.

    And staggering your work hours isn’t really an apt comparison because my boss sets my hours, not me. I only have so much flexibility.

    Other than that though, I thought it was a pretty good article.

    The one thing that wasn’t discussed in the article (and I haven’t seen it discussed as much) is that based on my understanding of this whole upgrading to a smart grid, the government will to allow the utilities to raise distribution charge that will offset any revenue decrease from more conservation.

    In order to get the utility companies on board with upgrading their grid and promoting conservation they want get the same if not more money every month from consumers — and to do that they will be allowed to raise their distribution fees that arent related to how much/little energy you use or when it is. It’s basically a fixed cost in order to mitigate and revenue lost from conservation smart grid upgrades.

    So in the long run, the smart grid and conservation won’t actually allow for any cost saving to the consumer

    At least, that is how I understand it. Please correct me if I am wrong

  8. The “smart grid” concept is being flogged by government authoritarian types who want to expand their ability to engineer private behavior and by various rent-seeking corporations who stand to make lots of money in manufacturing and selling the necessary equipment and/or managing the operation of the grid.

  9. Smart Grid is also going to help not build power plants. We are running out of capacity and regulations are not allowing more to be built fast enough. Instead of Smart Grid, I think people should be charged what it actually costs to get the electricity to them rather than what the regulators say can be charged. Conservation would be pretty popular pretty quick.

  10. I disagree with his assumptions. I know of no serious expert calling for a complete rebuilding of our power grid (i don’t count gore as an expert). And he quotes Friedman. Please. No one takes this guy seriously.

  11. Instead of Smart Grid, I think people should be charged what it actually costs to get the electricity to them rather than what the regulators say can be charged.

    Utility regulators generally allow the charge to the consumer to based on some formula that (a) covers costs and (b) provides some return on investment. So charging only “actual costs” (and figuring those is harder than you think) would actually reduce the cost of electricity.

    And, of course, eliminate investment in electric utilities.

  12. It’s been a long time since I studied electronics, but I believe the benefit of DC lines is actually that AC lines are less efficient. It used to be the other way around. Long ago, engineers(Tesla?) figured out that it’s a lot more efficient to have lots of voltage and little current, since it’s the current that generates heat and wastes energy. In the olden days, to get high voltage you’d need to use step-up and step-down transformers to step-up the voltage for long power runs. That required alternating current – DC doesn’t pass through a transformer. Well, AC has a tendency to lose power, both by radiating like an antenna and by inducing eddy currents in near-by conductors (water towers, people, the earth). Also, AC voltage swings up and down, and at the peaks you have a greater chance of corona discharge – electrons just boiling off the lines and floating down to ground.

    Enter semiconductors, with their ability to turn AC into DC, and DC into AC. So now you can step up your voltage, turn it into high voltage DC, send it over a transmission line, chop it back up into AC and step it back down. You then avoid excessive corona discharge and eddy current losses, and end up with a much more efficient system.

    So, it really doesn’t have anything to do with solar or wind power.

    Also, as someone who’s working on a small part of the smart grid(wireless meters), I think the technology definitely has the chance to shift energy usage to off-peak times. Basically your meter will alert you – maybe via an email, text message, voice alarm… whatever – and let you know you can save money by running the dishes later. It gives customers the option of signing up for having their electricity cut off first when a brown-out hits, in exchange for a reduced electric rate. Further – no more meter readers. That alone should save the utilities a pile of money. Did I mention they can turn it on and off remotely? So now you can just call up and get your power turned on, instead of waiting for a service appointment.

    In another 15 years (likely less), we’ll start to see smart appliances which talk to the meter, negotiating power usage automatically. This information can also propagate back to the generators to allow them to tailor the amount of electricity produced.

  13. For just one thing, these modern smart-grid technologies are not yet widely deployed, yet they have the potential to reduce billions of dollars of costs attributable to power interruptions and fluctuations across the network. The Electric Power Research Institute, for example, estimates that electricity disruptions cost the economy upward of $100 billion each year in damages and lost business.5 With new investments in technology, these losses are increasingly preventable.

  14. In re congestion pricing analogy: Good point, but I believe Tucker’s argument is that the extra expense for peak electricity will be relatively minimal in the average consumer’s budget so that few will be motivated by it. On the other hand, the more power use decisions can be automated at home (kind of like making regular contributions to what is left of one’s retirement account) the more likely off peak pricing will affect consumer behavior. We’ll see.

    ChicagoTom: I reported on the decoupling concept you mention here.

    David Pinto: I think Lynne Kiesling is great too.

  15. Shannon Love

    Nothing the contemporary left is doing today will do more long term damage than their continued assault on our electricity grid.

    Who says that’s not the point?

  16. jasno – great detail, thanks.

  17. If this grid is so smart and can control who uses power when, who is to say that the consumer will be making that decision?

    Is there any reason a smart grid couldn’t be configured to allow top-down micromanagement of energy use?

  18. Is there any reason a smart grid couldn’t be configured to allow top-down micromanagement of energy use?

    Well, yes, but you could configure the internet to allow a top-down micromanagement of information. Any technology can be used badly; the calculation comes down to figuring if the gain is worth the risk. Back of the envelope, my take is the answer is yes.

    Also to add to what jasno said-
    I2R losses are no different* in AC than DC. Since AC is also subject to reactive loading (AC causes conductors to act like capacitors and inductors, as well as resistors), the I tends to be a little higher for the same real load, and thus a little bit more losses.

    The key difference is as he said is it used to be easier to change voltage on AC than DC, and is still generally more efficient. But you generally lose even more efficience transforming AC to DC or vice versa rather than keeping it as it is – that’s why DC xmision lines would be imortant for solar, but not necesarily wind. (AC motors and generators tend to be smaller and cheaper than equivalent AC ones – but DC motors and generators are easier to regulate and are better at variable speeds.)

    High voltage DC has been around for a while – it’s what Edison started with (as opposed to Tesla’s AC). The other primary disadvantage of DC throughout history is that compared to AC you need a significant insulator from ground for DC – which until recently was very expensive, and still is somewhat more than the equivalant AC line. With AC you can basically trick it into being neutral with ground with 3 phase transmission, which also reduces reactive loading.

    *specifically for the same real power output. For rated current and voltage it’s generally not quite true because rated values are usually peak values: DC is always at peak, but the I used for AC is the peak’s root mean square value – peak current/sqrt(2)

  19. Electricity is cheaper at night because no one uses it then.

    I mean, think about it, what tasks that require electricity that you do during the day can be done at night? I’m thinking here… and I’m coming up with nearly zero.

    Lights: don’t need lights after I’m in bed.
    Washing clothes: Hmm, I still need to put the clothes in the washer, take them out and put them in the dryer. So yes, I suppose I could do one load right when I go to bed and it will be wet in the morning.
    Dishes: Run dishwasher at night… I tend to do this already.

    Cooling/heating/water heating etc. are done on demand. You either demand them at night, or you don’t. Shifting demand to these at a time when you don’t need them solves nothing.

    Refrigeration and the like are already 24hr activities.

    So what are we talking about here?

  20. Is there any reason a smart grid couldn’t be configured to allow top-down micromanagement of energy use?

    I believe that’s what politicians think when they say “smart grid”.

  21. I2R losses are no different* in AC than DC. Since AC is also subject to reactive loading (AC causes conductors to act like capacitors and inductors, as well as resistors), the I tends to be a little higher for the same real load, and thus a little bit more losses.

    Good point. Actually in an AC system, whenever you have an appliance that isn’t a pure DC load, like an refrigerator or an air conditioner, you’re likely to see a phase difference between the voltage and current swings. The greater the difference in phase, the greater the difference between your ‘apparent power'(Volts x Amps) and your ‘real power'(DC heating equivalent). Unfortunately, most meters read your ‘apparent power’ usage, not your ‘real power’. So by running a bunch of inductive(like motors) or capacitive loads, you’re paying for power that you’re not using. That’s the point behind those magical power saving boxes they used to sell at home depot – they’re just power factor correction devices (usually capacitors) which fix the phase difference. That way you pay for the power you’re actually using.

    The key difference is as he said is it used to be easier to change voltage on AC than DC, and is still generally more efficient. But you generally lose even more efficience transforming AC to DC or vice versa rather than keeping it as it is – that’s why DC xmision lines would be imortant for solar, but not necesarily wind.

    Are wind turbines running AC generators that are synchronized to the powerline frequency/phase? I guess it would explain the wind farm blades all moving in lock-step. For solar, I’d bet that the DC goes through a power controller no matter what, so you could chop it up pretty efficiently. I really doubt they’d stack up solar panels in series until they’re pushing 700+kV. That would take a hell of a lot of panels.

    High voltage DC has been around for a while – it’s what Edison started with (as opposed to Tesla’s AC).
    How high did Edison go? What I’ve read mentioned 110v generators, designed to end up with 100v at the consumer end. He figured 10v would be eaten up by the transmission lines.

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