In the past 120 years, the world’s aging energy grid has not seen much innovation. Companies are still making implementation decisions based on principles that were developed in the grid’s infancy. As the world faces down a growing energy problem in the light of there now being almost 7 billion people walking the planet, companies are deciding that it is time to bring about some change to take advantage of modern technology to help with resource conservation. A consortium that includes IBM, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and other power companies has decided that a software update is the first major step to both regulate power consumption, and integrate new renewable energy technologies; “Grid 2.0? if you will. The consortium is getting ready to install the system across five states in the Pacific Northwest, after a successful trial run in Washington state last year.
The main idea behind the software platform is simple: Give the power companies the ability to control energy consumption at peak times by making small changes in each home that will equal big savings when looking at the zoomed-out, macro picture of the grid. This is accomplished by installing “smart” thermostats in the homes of customers who opt into the program. By giving these consumers rebates and different incentives, the providers increase adoption to help make the project viable. Simply put, the power company is able to remotely tweak your thermostat, ultimately reducing the energy your home is using. Taking a page out of the airline executives book that saved his company millions by taking away one olive in each salad it served during flight, the power providers seek to save energy by the volume of micro-changes it makes in smart thermostats since they are saving a large amount of energy overall.
In addition to consumption control, IBM is helping the consortium tie other energy sources such as wind and solar into the grid to store them for use during periods of high demand. Integration of renewable energy sources is a big part of the consortium’s overall plan for the future of the grid. On paper, this plan certainly looks like it could be a winner, but there are two large problems to overcome: First, dealing with Big Brother — second, dealing with infrastructure.
I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dave
Let’s start with the most obvious problem there is with this plan, the idea that a “Big Brother” company is going to be able to take control of a user’s thermostat and other household appliances. There are some serious concerns that have been voiced with this idea. Exactly how much control will the company assert? If they make a change to your thermostat and you change it back, will the software reassert the temperature change? Could this lead to energy “caps” like consumers already have with home and mobile internet connections? It sure would be a bummer to hit a cap on one of the coldest days of the year and not be able to heat your home.
The consumer is said to benefit from this plan by enjoying a flat rate based on average consumption of the grid overall. At the end of a billing cycle, if a home has used significantly less than that average, the consumer will get a rebate. There is a problem here as well as companies could regulate the power usage so that users never fall below that point. This might sound overly cynical and rather “Skynet” in nature, but these possibilities are there, and a result would be subject to heavy governmental regulation that could bog down the process until it’s no longer viable. There would need to be some real transparency and an implementation of some sort of real-time information on the power usage of a home. The consumers have the right to see how the software run by their power company is regulating their homes. Google had a great project called Google Power Meter, now retired, which allowed users to see how much energy they were burning. Something like that is what is needed for this overhaul to work.
It can be argued that this is what is needed to help curb the high rate of energy consumption, especially in the US. Environmentalists hold that without this kind of plan in place, people will inherently wasteful because that is what they have been taught to do. They may have a point as many of the “dumb” thermostats in homes are left unset despite some having some intricate scheduling systems. The issue is that any kind of control asserted by a company might be looked upon as draconian in parts of the country used to expressing individual freedoms.
The other hurdle to leap over is the practical aspect of the power grid’s aging infrastructure. Simply put, some of it is ancient and costly to replace. It is a sound idea for this plan to start with software that will take advantage of existing infrastructure, because the cost of a complete overhaul would be staggering. Add in the fact that the software project was funded in large part by the economic Recovery Act of 2009 in the US, there is a looming question of who will pay. Where does the power company responsibility come in as far as the monetary side of an overhaul?
There are some logistical issues as well with the integration of renewable energy sources. Windmill farms are usually pretty distant from heavily populated areas, solar panel arrays the same. Getting the power from these sources to the consumer is an issue because the current wiring in use is “lossy,” wasting precious energy in transport. One has to think of the grid as a large factory system with supply and demand and logistical challenges that rival UPS. Any overhaul would require some research into carrying power over long distances without losing much volume.
Problems aside, this is as good of a plan as any out there at the moment to help reduce energy consumption. Make no mistake, this is a problem that we as a planet must face and work together on. We are in the infancy of the work that needs to be done. The exciting part is that through this kind of work comes great innovations that can carry over into other technology, bringing new advances in ways that have not be thought of yet. The pursuit to overcome the hurdles of this project will be nothing but positive on the whole. It will be exciting to see where this project goes.