Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The Smart Grid and You

If you’re reading this you’re probably someone who takes responsibility for your own future, instead of waiting for the government or someone else to do things for you. Perhaps you’ve already installed solar panels, instead of waiting for substantial rebates or subsidies. You don’t get excited when you hear about a breakthrough, and you’re not waiting for a dramatic price reduction of solar panels. You may not be able to justify the high cost based on the electricity your system produces, but you have no regrets. You have a system that provides an emergency source of electricity to serve when the grid fails, and you have some protection from the inevitable rate increases. And, should you experience a total melt-down of society, you’re better equipped to live a self-sufficient lifestyle than those who don’t have these systems.

As content as you might be with your own efforts, it’s good to see environmentally-beneficial government-supported projects when they do occur. The Smart Grid is a project that recently received significant funding from the Obama Administration, and those of us who already have solar- or wind-power systems will benefit to a greater extent than those who don’t.

The Smart Grid, when implemented, will be a modernization of the current electrical generation and distribution system. The Smart Grid will be an automated network, with a two-way flow of electricity and information. Extensive monitoring will result in a much more efficient system, benefiting electricity providers, as well as consumers. Providers will be better equipped to reduce generation and transmission costs, and consumers will be better prepared to make decisions affecting their use of electricity and control cost. The Smart Grid will have a positive environmental benefit as well.

Monitoring and control will extend beyond the generation and transmission infrastructure. In-home monitoring and control is another characteristic of the Smart Grid. Consumers will have real-time cost information, helping them to manage electricity use in order to save money. Additionally, smart appliances in the home will use this information to automatically reduce energy usage. Use of the cost-saving features built into smart appliances will be voluntary, not mandatory. Users will have the ability to override these cost-saving features if they so desire.

Other characteristics of the Smart Grid are its ability to accept power from solar and wind systems, and to utilize energy storage devices. This should be particularly interesting to those who have solar or wind systems, and to those who plan to purchase an electric vehicle. You may be an electricity provider someday, and you’ll be paid for it.

While some will simply ignore the available information concerning the cost of electricity, others will minimize their use when the cost is high. Doing laundry, running the dishwasher, and vacuuming are all chores that can be done when rates are low. If you have a solar electric system or a wind turbine, you have an additional option; use energy from your system when grid-supplied electricity is expensive, and use grid-supplied electricity when the cost is low. That, of course, is intuitive and many are already doing that. However, there are other strategies that may result in additional savings. For example; consider charging batteries when electric rates are low, and use the stored energy when rates are high. The battery charger could be controlled by a timer, set to be powered-up when rates are low, and to switch off when rates are high. Better yet, the battery charger could be switched on and off via a “Smart Controller”. A Smart Controller would be a device that can switch power to an outlet on and off based on preset electricity rate thresholds. I’m not aware that such a device exists, but it soon will. You’ll need a battery charger, (like the one described here), that will not overcharge your batteries.

Those who’ll benefit most from the Smart Grid will be, no doubt, those who drive Plug-in-Electric-Vehicles (PHEV’s). Most will be charged at night, when electric rates are low. Consider for a moment that you’ll pay about twenty cents per kwh for electricity during periods of peak demand, and less than two cents per kwh when demand is low. (These figures are based on my actual cost for electricity as a participant in a program offered by my provider). While your cost to top off the battery during the day might be as much as 3 dollars, the cost at night could be less than 30 cents. Replacing gasoline with electricity for transportation could result in a savings of $1000.00 each year. At 3 dollars per gallon, cutting gasoline use by one gallon a day would accomplish that. Those who need to charge their PHEV’s during the day, night-shift workers for example, would benefit by installing a PV system.

Some PHEV’s will be connected to the grid during the day, returning excess power to the grid during periods of peak demand. This concept, known as Vehicle-to-Grid (V2G) technology, is another example of an innovation made possible by a Smart Grid implementation that will benefit providers and users of electricity. Theoretically, you could earn money by connecting a PHEV to the grid. If you recharge at night when rates are low, and return power to the grid when rates are high, you might find that the power company owes you money at the end of the month. You’ll not only eliminate your use of gasoline, you could fuel your car at no cost at all. Your actual results will depend on the number of miles you drive each day.

“Ask not what the grid
can do for you. Ask what you can do for the grid – and
prepare to get paid for it!”

Your contribution to the grid, as small as it might be, will be an important part of the Smart Grid. Solar, wind, and V2G systems will increase the number of electricity providers dramatically. The result will be a broad distribution system that is less vulnerable to natural disasters and terrorist attacks. Utilities will have better control of resources, reducing the need to add power plants simply to meet peak demands.

Whether you’re an electricity provider, consumer, or both, you need to be able to measure the flow of electricity to be able to control it. The Smart Grid will provide that capability, and pave the way for the development of tools to better manage electricity. Pilot projects have already shown that Smart Grid technology not only enhances electric grid reliability and reduces outages, but also creates smaller electricity bills for consumers and could alleviate the need for additional infrastructure. The Smart Grid connects consumers to the grid in a way that is beneficial to both. This is the dawn of some pretty interesting innovations.