Smart Grids or Procrustean Beds?

There has been a lot of advertising in the media of late about ‘Smart Grids’ – breathless babbling about this wondrous technology that will save the planet by somehow reducing the dreaded greenhouse gasses. But there has been very little talked about in public about what it is and how the public will be affected. I can understand why, I think.

The electric grid is a complex and delicate beast. Most of our devices are very touchy about the quality of the power that they consume – shift the line frequency by too much and motors overheat or stop working; vary the voltage too much and TV pictures collapse, light bulbs explode and so forth. So maintaining stability is a major challenge that involves careful matching of supply and demand. This problem has gotten worse as grids are expanded and interconnected to move power across great distances. Not only does the management problem get worse but these large scale wiring plants are also subject to other disturbances – induced currents from geomagnetic events or cascading faults that disturb power over huge areas.

Problem is that while electric loads can vary over short time intervals, many forms of generation take time to ramp up or down, sometimes many hours. This exacerbates the problems of grid management. Power sources are categorized as to whether their output can be scheduled or not – this is referred to as dispatchable power. The problem with the current fascination with renewable power (see is that neither solar nor wind power is dispatchable. What is worse, wind can vary by 100% within a few minutes so any large scale usage will have grid stability side effects. The approach so far has been to build backup power generation capability – largely turbines fueled by natural gas. These have to be kept spinning all the time – burning fuel to keep the equipment ready to provide power at a moment’s notice. (The side effect is that whatever greenhouse gasses were saved by using wind are more than made up for by the backup generators – but both wind advocates and politicians ignore this little detail.  Recently there have been studies showing that because of wind backup the GHG production actually increases.) And power companies introduce geographical diversity to the wind farms – spreading them far apart to catch the wind someplace. Problem is that across a small place like Ontario, winds tend to be correlated – so much larger distances are needed. And let us not overlook transmission and conversion losses – which run 15% to 20%, sometimes higher.

What is generally talked about is that the ‘smart grid’ involves computer management and enhanced communication to enable better coordination of the grid. What is not really talked about is that this coordination also involves coercive user demand management. Power companies have for the last few years been offering inducements to allow them to deploy ‘managed’ thermostats – that would permit the company to override local settings to reduce user demand when it suited them. You want to cool or heat your house when there is a power shortage? Not any more – the power company will tell you when you can and cannot do this. This idea is no doubt brought by the same people who introduced time of day metering, another demand-management approach.

If one reads the latest report on IESO about the future Smart Grid and how wonderful it will be (someday) there is this oft-asserted phrase that consumers will be able to monitor and manage their energy us.  What is not mentioned is that over the last few years the offpeak rate has been raised aggressively and is now very close to the onpeak rate — since the supplemental charges are now 57% of the total bill this TOU differentiation is becoming increasingly meaningless.  We think $0.25/kw is likely the real net net.  So all the talk about how wonderful this will be is likely from the viewpoint of the utility people (the 1997 Ontario utility restructuring brought to us by Enron, by the way.)  The bottom line really is it is all about relentlessly higher prices and loss of control in anything but an illusory sense.

The smart grid is more of this – allowing the power company to change your electricity demand remotely to suit themselves. They feel this will allow them to cut back on backup power, which produces those green house gasses and add even more wind to the power mix. The idea, I guess, is that when the wind drops in Ontario a whole lot of houses go dark. All the virtues of a third-world power system but under modern computer control and at power prices that are predicted to be among the highest in the world.

And I am sure that because these are all controlled blackouts that some areas will be hit harder than others. And to administer all of this there will no doubt be a huge bureaucracy added for the statutory exemptions to come. In effect, instead of expanding the power supply in Ontario they are looking for ways to reduce it and to some extent make it less reliable. Power consumers in Ontario are being put on a procrustean bed to have their ‘excess’ lopped off when it is not convenient. I am sure there will be some side effects. Most electrical equipment fails quicker when provided with a varying supply — not that the current generation of appliances has been engineered for long life anymore. Ontario grew because it had a cheap and reliable electricity supply. It will be interesting to see how expensive and unreliable power will help correct the local economic downturn. The problem with this solution is it is yet another form of coercion that we will have to live with and suffer the consequences.

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