Get Smart : Meter or grid?

Throughout the years there have been many different versions of “smart” electronics. Movies are full of ‘evil’ and ‘good’ appliances, from Robbie the Robot to R2-D2. And even some that are just part of the background, like most of the robots in Star Wars and Wall-E. The energy industry has also started to toss around ‘smart’ terms. Not just things like Ohm’s law or Restricted-Universe Census, but smart meters and smart grids. So what are they? Are they the same or are they different? What does “smart” mean?

First of all, smart is not an indication of how well a meter or a grid does on an intelligence test, how many times they beat me at checkers, or how well they plot to overthrow humans and use us as batteries. It has to deal with how well they respond with real time stimuli. Can the system adjust in a real time fashion; can it be run correctly by automation?

A smart meter is like any other electrical meter. It reads how much electricity you use, in terms of Kilowatt hours. The information that the smart meter can give you is far more than a Thomas meter. A smart meter can tell you in real time how much electricity you are using at any given moment. It can also show you your electrical usage over time. You can see when you use the most electricity (probably right after you come home). Armed with that data you can make informed decisions, such as deciding if you want air-conditioning to come on when you get home at 5 p.m. or if you want to avoid peak hours and have the air-conditioning running from 4 – 5 p.m. But a smart grid is something completely different.

Kraftwerksneubau Neurath
Creative Commons License photo credit: Neuwieser

Even though the electrical grid has been growing for over 100 years , it has yet to become smart. The current grid is set for a “use it or loose it” grid. That means that the grid should always have enough electricity to power everything that is currently on it. This creates two types of electrical generation. One is base load and the other is peak load. Base load is what is always on the grid. This is mostly created using coal fired power plants. A Coal fired plant takes a lot of energy to start up, but once you get it going it is easy to keep it going. Because of that coal fired plants are always burning coal. So when you’re at work and the refrigerator is still on, it’s part of the base load. Most of the time the base load handles all our electricity needs. However if there is a large spike of electrical usage, such as the one around 5 p.m. when most people get off of work, the base load is not enough. This is when they can bring on fast startup plants, usually using natural gas as the fuel, and supply the electricity during peak times.

The current grid is rigged for redundancy. The current electrical grid has grown up to offer multiple paths for electricity. This means that if one area of the grid goes down, the electricity can be maneuvered around the broken part. What that means in practice is that just because an area near you looses power, your power may not be interrupted.

Why would a smart grid be better? For our current grid we use mostly large scale power generation plants, but the smart grid would easily incorporate lots of small residential power generators like small solar panels on roofs and small wind turbines. The small solar panel and wind turbines on the current grid are unable to provide all your electrical needs. Even though they take in electricity all day long, they only have available what they are taking in at the moment. If there were a way to store all the electricity that they take in during the day when you aren’t using electricity, then it would help with the electricity you need, especially during peak times. Also in a smart grid, if you had an excess of electricity you could sell it to a power company. You could even sell it directly to people who need the electricity. You would go from one who can only consume, to a producer, seller and consumer of electricity.

Arrays from the right
Creative Commons License photo credit: Mike Weston

How can a smart grid help us save money on our electric bills? Currently most electrical companies charge a single rate for electricity. That means that you pay a constant price for a kilowatt hour. The real cost of electricity is always in flux. The price has to do with what time of day it is, what season, what it was priced at yesterday, which power plants are down for maintenance, which ones have been reopened, the weather and many other variables. A smart grid would allow us to purchase electricity in real time. What if power plant B is selling electricity cheaper than power plant B at 3 a.m.? What if power plant A sells cheaper electricity at 2 p.m. than it does at 5 p.m.? Which one would you like to buy electricity from? When would you buy your electricity if you could store it? It gets even more exciting by adding smart appliances. What if you could tell you dishwasher to only wash dishes during the night if the cost of a kilowatt hour fell to a certain price? What if your water heater could find you a better price for the electricity used to heat water for your morning shower?


So is it green? What do we mean by green, it looks like cooper to me. The real question is how can this help save the environment and money (or if you’re more cynical, money and the environment). A smart grid would have the ability to allow small scale renewables to have a larger effect. In a system where a lot of electrical production would be done on residential or small communal solar cells, wind farms, tidal farms, or back yard geothermal plants, the need for large scale power plants would diminish. Large scale power plants will never be done away with. Mother Nature is far too capricious for that.

electric car charging point
Creative Commons License photo credit: frankh

Why do we need to change the grid if it works? The electrical needs for the country are expected to grow 30 % over the next 25 years. That prediction is counting on nothing new happening. What happens if we all switch to the electric cars during that time? Gasoline prices would drop, but electrical prices would rise, because electricity would replace gasoline as the fuel of choice. Right now that would mean building more and more coal plants.

On a smart grid, with most households having some small renewable power generation, the rise in electrical need may not lead to the building of more coal fired power plants.

So how long will this take? So far it has taken over 100 years to get to where we are today. When electricity first started being used most power plants where small and only provided enough electricity for a few buildings. Over time it became cheaper and more reasonable to have power generation on a larger scale. While this would not require us to reinvent the electrical grid, it would mean upgrading all of it. And all that would take more then four years.

Not to Be Long-Winded, But…

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Creative Commons License photo credit: __Dori__

Just can’t get enough wind energy this month. NPR featured  (recently mentioned here) T. Boone Pickens, the venerable Texas oilman, and his plans to put 2500  wind turbines in the Texas panhandle–enough to power 1.3 million homes. He is a big advocate of using more wind energy to reduce our dependence on foreign oil by making more natural gas–currently used to generate electricity–available for powering transportation. Pickens points out a study citing that the land available in North Dakota for wind turbines–if used for that purpose–might be enough to power the entire USA.

And for those of you who are still stuck on the idea that wind turbines are ugly, you can soon try on a hot little number designed by French designer Philippe Starck. He’s designed a plastic wind turbine that can generate 20 to 60 percent (!) of your home electricity needs. NPR reports that it will be available later this year for only $630.  Maybe you should run down to your local wind boutique to make sure you’re on the list for this one. Fashion forward AND eco-friendly. How hip are you gonna be this fall?

Bertha
Creative Commons License photo credit: CoreBurn

Speaking of wind, hurricane season is now in session, which means we’re also thinking a lot about the Gulf of Mexico – which is also closely related to our current energy crisis.

Offshore drilling on the Offshore Continental Shelf - (OCS) is an important factor in the equation which determines the cost of gasoline. Now you can actually keep an eye on the Minerals Management Service web site to see how the weather is effecting oil production in the GUlf of Mexico. For safety reasons, offshore oil rigs are shut down during dangerous conditions. But don’t worry too much, there are numerous procedures in place to make sure hurricanes don’t cause oil leaks.

Blowing away the alternative: a case for wind power

Following up on his previous post, Wiess Energy Hall Master Docent Julian Lamborn shares his case for the further development of wind power in the US: 

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Creative Commons License photo credit: s2art

If coal-fired power stations were to be forced to sequester their greenhouse gases then production of electricity from wind generators would be cheaper than from coal.  There are optimists who believe that the present USA wind generating capacity could be raised from 1% of the country’s electricity needs to 20% (although 5% to 7% by 2020 is believed by most to be a more realistic number, particularly since some of the Federal subsidy programs for wind generators are scheduled to run out at the end of 2008!)
If you are considering putting a 2 MW wind/power generating machine in your backyard (remember that it would be some 360 ft. tall!) it would set you back around $2 million but, remember, the wind resources in the United States are vast. Using today’s technology, there is theoretically enough wind power flowing across our country to supply all of our electricity needs.  North Dakota alone could supply about one third of the nation’s electricity

Adequate winds for commercial power production are found at sites in 46 states but only a small portion of our country’s vast wind potential will likely be tapped in the near future since there has to be an integrated approach to energy management with both political and industrial participation.

Here in the USA, in Iowa, at the Iowa Stored Energy Park, a $200 million system that will take surplus electrical energy from nearby wind farms and use it to compress and store high pressure air underground will go online in 2011.  When needed, this compressed air can be released into a natural gas fired electricity generating turbine to produce some 268 MW of supplemental power.

The World Wind Energy Association anticipates that the installed capacity of wind powered generators will be around 170,000 MW by the end of 2010… this represents an 81% increase in world wind generating capacity from the end of 2007. This is the fastest growing source of alternate energy the world has at present. 

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Creative Commons License photo credit: s2art

Although there are many NIMBY (“not in my back-yard”) activists interested in where to site wind-farms, many ornithologists interested in avian problems created by the rotor blades and many people that just don’t like change, the alternate of burning more and more coal and producing potentially more and more greenhouse gases has also to be put into the equation.  In the long term (as there always is) there will be an acceptable balance wherein, at least in the US, there will probably be wind generation producing between 5% and 10% of our daily electricity needs as part of our daily power grid input. But I’ll also bet with you, though, that none of these wind generators will be in or very close to a National Park!