Smart grids will get worse, so dumb buildings must get smarter
Thursday, February 18, 2010 at 02:32PM
Toby Considine

The grid will never be as good as it was. The old grid had reliable surplus energy based on predictable energy sources, and adequate safety margins. The smart grid will have none of these. We are replacing predictable coal, nuclear, and hydro with intermittent energy sources. We cannot build the consensus to build transmission capacity to bring energy from far away. The grid’s reduced safety margins make even moderate adoption of intermittent energy sources risky. By every measure, the quality of the North American grid will get worse. That’s the plan.

So why make the grid smart? Well, we want to be able to know how bad the grid is faster. So we will add sensors, and track operations closely. One of the early power companies to install smart grid sensors distributes power on either side of FirstEnergy. FirstEnergy is the utility whose slow response led to the great Northeastern Blackout of 2003. FirstEnergy was pushing too much power over transmission lines causing them to overheat. Overheated wires stretch, in this case stretching all the way to hit untrimmed trees. The adjacent power company could see this coming, and even called the FirstEnergy control room to urge action before a crisis came. We want smart grids so the grid will be less like Cleveland in 2003, and more like its neighbors.

Most general public reports, though, gloss over what response FirstEnergy could have made. In essence, FirstEnergy could have prevented the great blackout by voluntarily unplugging half of Cleveland. That is what smart grids will do; they will turn off half of Cleveland to keep problems from spreading. With the quality of the grid getting worse by design, smart grids will turn off their customers regularly. Turning off customers to protect their own infrastructure will become a regular activity of power companies that operate smart grids. As the saying goes "Fun for the boys, but hard on the frogs". The power companies are the boys; in this model, most of us, in homes, buildings, and industry, accept the role of "frog".

Buildings, and their owner/occupants, have four choices. They can stay dumb and fail regularly. They can get a little smart turn off by the grid whenever the grid makes a request. They can accept that the grid is an unreliable partner, and try to isolate themselves from the grid. They can partner with the grid and make intelligent cost-based dynamic decisions about whether to use the grid, shed load, or rely on internal energy sources.

Being a little smart is what the more advanced buildings do today. Homes have just enough smarts to obey some simple commands&emdash;they are as smart as a well-trained puppy. Some commercial buildings are the same&emdash;let’s call them the trained killer whales, larger and more impressive, but still doing just what they are told. We call these pet tricks “managed energy”.

If we fail to establish business models and standard communications between smart grids and smart buildings, more and more people will opt out of the grid. Already, 135,000 buildings with utility electric meters on-site have opted to be off the grid; that number has been growing at a compounded 30% each of the last five years. Less reliable power will accelerate this trend. Government over-reach on access to cellular “operations data” pushes this approach as well—and the long-conditioned reflexes of the utilities to rollover even before they are asked (see grow light arrests, OpenADE requirements) will encourage those who can afford it to get off the grid. This model will keep site-based energy expensive and development slow.

Clean, lightweight communications of electricity scarcity and abundance are the prerequisite for partnering between grids and end nodes. These signals must be limited to market signals and no more; the universal abstraction for scarcity and value is price. Standards build markets, and national standards for economic signals will create national markets for every sort of systems that use, stores, or manages energy use. National standards will reduce integration costs, speeding the adoption of new approaches in existing buildings.

In smart grids, the only question is will we turn off our own end nodes, or will we let our electricity suppliers do it for us. If we put our suppliers in charge, smart grid efforts will be slower and more expensive, and less effective. If we put our suppliers in charge, we will accept the complete loss of privacy in our homes and offices. If we do it ourselves, the transition will be quicker and less expensive. If we do it ourselves, we maintain autonomy over our lives and preserve our essential rights.

We have a choice. Either we choose for ourselves or someone else chooses for us.

Article originally appeared on New Daedalus (
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