Yesterday I introduced the concept of an intelligent, smart electricity grid and discussed how it handles transient sources of renewable energy like solar and wind. However, the benefits of a smart grid extend far beyond simply providing a smooth, consistent power supply. New smart grid features in homes, business, and industries can establish a communications link with utilities which offers a number of benefits.
Some might be surprised to learn that the vast majority of electricity providers have little idea what’s happening at the point of delivery (e.g. your house). For example, the only way your utility provider knows that you have a power outage is if you pick up the phone and call them. Conversely, should your city start using power en masse, perhaps by running air conditioners during a heat wave, the utilities have no way of communicating with homes and businesses to enact small changes that keep the system from overloading. Residents of Texas and California (as well as many developing nations) are certainly familiar with the rolling blackouts caused when providers reach a saturation point.
The smart grid’s solution to these deficiencies is two-way communication. New monitors installed in homes and businesses will be able to measure their power usage at any time and, through communication with the utility, provide the cost per kWh. If electricity generation at the power plant fails to keep pace with demand, blackouts and brown outs can be avoided with a carefully orchestrated, limited power cycling. This means, for instance, that during a hot summer day the utility may divide its service area into 4 zones. For 7.5 minutes out of every 30, the utility will power down specific appliances like air conditioners, water heaters, and pool pumps. Typically, this is too short a period of time to notice any significant temperature gradient. Then, after 7.5 minutes is up, the utility moves on to zone 2 and the cycle continues.
As the smart grid gently spreads out these power-downs, the overall system retains fidelity by conserving up to 25% of electricity during peak periods. Consumers could potentially save a quarter of their energy costs at times when it is most expensive and can usually do so with minimal change in comfort. Ultimately, though, consumers would retain the freedom to choose which devices are allowed to shut down and when. If you’re hosting a dinner party with your boss, for example, and a slightly warmer dining room just won’t do, you can always overload the controls.
Tomorrow, I will continue to describe how consumer-end smart grid technologies can save users money.