Smart buildings are more important than smart grids
Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 09:41PM
Toby Considine in Energy, Enterprise Interaction, Intelligent Buildings, Markets and Innovation, Microgrids and Distributed Systems, Smart Grid, Standards, Zero Energy Buildings

Smart operations in transmission and distribution won’t help us much. An upgrade for utility operations is long overdue, especially if energy distribution gets over its severe case of not-invented-here. This upgrade may be absolutely necessary for the grid to support more dynamic energy markets, ones that will balance electricity supply and demand. The most important smart interactions will come from the grid’s end nodes: industry, commercial buildings and homes. To get the benefits of the smart grid, we must have smart load.

The electric distribution system of North America is falling victim to its own success. It has enabled for us the greatest life style ever invented. It has largely succeeded in creating electricity to cheap to meter…until we bundle the capital costs into the electricity. But that electricity is not reliable enough for sensitive electronics. Wholesale prices for that cheap electricity may leap several orders of magnitude on a hot humid day like today in North Carolina.

Many businesses have unflattering terms to describe their customers. Consumers. Marks. Johns. For utilities, the word is load. But cheap dumb load is becoming too expensive. New cybersecurity concerns may make direct control, and direct control liability, too expensive. Even the much touted benefits of direct control of electric vehicle load become elusive in the mid-term.

Distributed energy resources are a challenge as well as opportunity. Used unwisely, they can increase the difficulty of managing the grid. Some implementation of central supply management to support wind farms show more gas burned in fast-start generators than if no wind was used at all. This is why the lion’s share of priority smart grid standards are for economic interactions rather than for control.

Energy management systems in the end nodes will have to become autonomous systems able to respond to economic signals from the grid, including predictions about future prices. Those economic signals must be great enough to spur investment. Because the risk of adopting new technologies is lower for individual end nodes than it is for any utility, some homes and commercial buildings will be able to adopt new technologies more rapidly than can the grid. The smart grid roadmap points to standards to enable this change, and to create opportunities through dynamic pricing

A mix of purchasers, ranging from early adopters to the risk adverse, will result in more normal markets for energy technology, e.g., the Pemberton innovation diffusion and Rogers technology adoption curves. This will attract more venture capital to distributed energy, particularly to energy storage. It is a simple fact that there are more storage options at the smaller scale of the end node than there are at grid scale. There are a lot of ways to store energy, and the curious might look to IDEA (District Energy) to expand their perspectives.

End nodes may have a mix of energy storage technologies. Thermal. Chemical. Hydrogen. Capacitors. Once they are the, the proper use of excess on-site generation is filling storage rather than selling to the grid. This can arguably result in 20% efficiency gains for each alternative energy without requiring new technology. This is a significant step on the road to net zero energy buildings. And net zero energy buildings are the smartest kind of load, able to responds significantly to each price signal from the grid.

For too long, we have leaned on the utilities to maintain our life styles and our civilization. It is time to give them a hand. It is time for smart load.

Article originally appeared on New Daedalus (
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