Smart Grid? It Depends

I was planning to get caught up today with several posts about media stories from the past two weeks.  I was hoping to combine a couple of those stories into a single post.  Now that I am sitting down to write, that plan has gone out the window.  There’s just too much to write about in each story.

Let’s start with Taylor Kuykendall’s story last week in The State Journal about the status of smart grid developments in WV.  Kuykendall did a great job of pulling together a lot of threads in the piece.  I won’t give you a lot of quotes from the piece in this post, because I want to use it as a platform for my own thoughts on what the media calls “smart grid” technologies.  But first, read Kuykendall’s story and then come back here.

OK, first, we need to do away with the myth that “smart grid” is a single thing.  It isn’t.  There are a number of technologies grouped under that heading:

  • Internet enabled retail meters that allow for real-time pricing so consumers can cut their electric bills and net metering producers can benefit from higher peak load prices
  • Internet enabled communication systems that allow power companies to monitor transmission and distribution systems to report faults and short circuits to centralized controllers
  • Local control networks that regulate current flows from small generators to regulate current flows from intermittent sources on local microgrids and connect microgrids to power company systems
  • Various kinds of automatic control systems that allow for response to problems without human intervention

As you can see, these systems are actually very different from each other, although they can be connected.

Take a look at the comment thread on a post I did last week.  Here’s the first comment I got:

Smart Grid/Micro grid and all the other catchphrases is window dressing in utility company speak for one thing-automating systems that remove the human element from the equation; i.e.- the worker.

This comment is right on target about most of the smart grid technologies that power companies are talking about.  Automating systems has decimated the quality and efficiency of power companies by eliminating workers who were a vast source of local knowledge and skills.  One of the biggest complaints that has been registered at the WV PSC about blackout response over the past three years has been that imported repair crews have no idea where they are or how to find downed lines.

Why is that?  Because AEP and FirstEnergy have gutted local line crews in WV over the past 20 years.  There is no one left who knows the local distribution systems.  My neighbors and I spent two days without power because a regional crew failed to check our circuit after they repaired a larger regional blackout.

The same is true for right of way maintenance.  In the 1970s, Mon Power’s Spencer office cleared rights of way with a local crew who did hand work.  Now all that work is contracted to companies that aren’t even registered to do business in WV and have no idea about land owners or their property lines.  The result is no work, slipshod work or illegal herbicide spraying.

So I agree with Bob’s comment.  Power companies’ main goal is to eliminate humans from their profit equations.  The other side of this calculation is the real risk represented by Internet enabled and automatic controls.  Everything works great, until it doesn’t.  NiSource thought they had everything under control in their Charleston control room, until a 20 inch gas line, that had never been pigged and had no automatic controls, blew out and burned ferociously for more than an hour.  More Internet controls also increase the vulnerability of our already vulnerable control systems to hackers and security threats.  The US government has already used Internet warfare very successfully against Iran.

So there is smart grid and there is smart grid.  Here is my response to Bob’s comment on my earlier post:

I see your point, and I have a lot more reservations about so-called smart grid developments that enhance grid centralization and control by power companies. Development in this direction only leads to less reliability and more insecurity.

However, there are a lot of networking technologies that are often called smart grid that are essential to the creation of local microgrids and which can be used to link small scale local generators into resilient local grids with locally based storage. These technologies actually create jobs and enhance local knowledge and skills.

So far, we have seen power companies use vague and misleading descriptions of smart grid technologies, mainly because they can generate endless press releases that serve their own business purposes.

The State Journal story is a good introduction to the main concepts, but it remains only half of the story, because it represents the goals and interests of the power companies that control out state’s electrical system.

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