The smart grid and the advance of civilization

Michael Giberson

Scientific American has an article on the start-up pains associated with smart grid development:

Only one thing is worse than the lights not coming on when the switch is flicked—and that’s the lights going out right afterward. The fact that the problem is most often a burned-out lightbulb is testimony to the reliability of what’s sometimes called the world’s largest machine—the U.S. transmission and distribution grid for electricity.

This made me laugh:

“If Alexander Graham Bell returned to Earth today, the progress in telecommunications over the last 125 years would be mystifying,” said Robert Catell, chairman of the New York State Smart Grid Consortium, at a smart grid event in New York City at New York University (NYU) in February. “If Thomas Edison came back today, not only would he recognize our electricity system, he could probably fix it” when problems arise.

Probably not true. After all, most of the grid is based on alternating current (AC) technology, but Edison was a proponent of and best understood direct current (DC).  Now if Catell would have said Nicolai Tesla, that would have been both funny and true.

The article mentions many trials and early advanced metering programs, emphasizing the costs and uncertain benefits.  Catell is quoted again, saying, “An educated and informed consumer is the best weapon in the war against energy demand, and the smart grid is the best way to educate the consumer.” Some of the examples in the article have benefits coming from having consumers act in response to information provided (via the meter, email and even an in-home orb that glows different colors depending on the price of power).

But engaged, immediate consumer response to changing prices is likely only to play a small part within the bigger energy picture.  People (who are not energy policy geeks or early adopters) have too many other things to do.  As Alfred Whitehead said of civilization generally, consumer engagement in the electric power industry will advance “by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.”

2 thoughts on “The smart grid and the advance of civilization

  1. Regarding “engaged consumer response” and people having too many other things to do: maybe the typical consumer hires an entity to manage the explosion of details that will come with the smart grid and smart meters. This entity would negotiate and secure the best prices for their energy, and help them analyze and manage their energy use. Think some combination of stock broker and financial planner and mutual fund.

    This might be an important question as we frame the rules that will come with the deployment of the smart grid. The rules should make a place for organizations that act on behalf of the consumer. If rules are established that balance protection and opportunity for the electricity consumer on the one hand with attractive business opportunities for utilities and other electrical service players on the other, the modern electricity supply system could radically transform our world for the better, and make the smart grid start-up pains worth while.

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