Smart Grid Challenges

Wald, M. L. December 5, 2014. Power Savings of Smart Meters Prove Slow to Materialize. New York Times. 

Meter readers were supposed to be phased out by tens of millions of new “smart” meters that talk directly to the electric company. The meters can record use by the hour, changing the price as the market changes and telling the customer — or maybe even the appliances themselves — the best time to buy energy.

But this is not happening. Although the goal is to shift consumption to off-peak hours when cheaper, cleaner electricity is available, experts say it is still many years away, despite billions in federal subsidies that have helped finance the switch to the so-called smart grid.

Analysts say that most customers, and public service commissions, are simply not ready for the change to what is known as dynamic pricing, which is intended to benefit the whole system by reducing demand during peak hours.

The idea is that as prices rise on summer afternoons or fall in the middle of the night, customers will learn to tailor their consumption — like running a dishwasher or washing machine, or charging an electric car — during times of better pricing.  It is a strategy that will become increasingly important as more wind turbines and solar panels are connected, and produce electricity without any relationship to the level of demand.

The dishwashers, air-conditioners, water heaters and other electric appliances that would automatically take signals from the meter are still to come, leaving consumers to manually manage their energy consumption.  “The smart meter giving people real-time access to price information is not going to make them get up in the middle of the night and turn their dishwasher on,” said John P. Hughes, the vice president for technical affairs at the Electricity Consumers Resource Council, a consumer group that represents mostly large industrial users. “Getting the enabling technology to do that is going to take a long time.”

In the Maryland Office of People’s Counsel, which represents customers in public service commission hearings, William F. Fields, a senior assistant, said that the cost-effectiveness of smart meters had yet to be demonstrated.  “I’ve never seen an analysis that shows that shifting my dishwashing, clothes-washing and clothes-drying load is going to make a significant impact on my monthly bill,” he said. “It’s just not that much electricity.”

Meier, A. May 2014. Challenges to the integration of renewable resources at high system penetration. California Energy Commission.

A challenge to “smart grid” coordination is managing unprecedented amounts of data associated with an unprecedented number of decisions and control actions at various levels throughout the grid.

This report outlined substantial challenges on the way to meeting these goals.

More work is required to move from the status quo to a system with 33% of intermittent renewables. The complex nature of the grid and the refining temporal and spatial coordination represented a profound departure from the capabilities of the legacy or baseload system. Any “smart grid” development will require time for learning.

IEEE. September 5, 2014. IEEE Report to DOE Quadrennial Energy Review on Priority Issues. Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

A large cost-benefit ratio is by no means assured. Potential benefits may be overestimated; for example some of the expectations for smart meters are being scaled back both in the U.S. and in Europe (19). Germany found that while smart metering would be beneficial for a particular group of customers, the majority of consumers would not benefit from a global installation of smart meters (20).

19 European Commission. June 2014. Benchmarking smart metering deployment in the EU-27 with a focus on electricity.

20 Ernst & Young. July 2013. Cost-benefit analysis for the comprehensive use of smart metering.

National Institute of Standards and Technology.  24 Jan 2014. Electromagnetic Compatibility of Smart Grid Devices and Systems. U.S. Department of Commerce.

The Smart Grid will dramatically increase the dependency of the electric grid on microprocessors, and turn the electric system into a giant computer that will monitor itself, optimize power delivery, remotely control and automate processes, and increase communications between control centers, transformers, switches, substations, homes, and businesses.

Smart Grid devices have the potential of making the electric grid less stable: “Many of these devices must function in harsh electromagnetic environments typical of utility, industrial, and commercial locations. Due to an increasing density of electromagnetic emitters (radiated and conducted, intentional and unintentional), the new equipment must have adequate immunity to function consistently and reliably, be resilient to major disturbances, and coexist with other equipment.”


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