Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Rationing via the Smart Grid


The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment ACT included $6.4 billion for development of the Smart Grid through programs of the Department of Energy.  The stated goals were “increased employment” and “better service to utility customers”.

From observation of the awards made by the Department f Energy, the Smart Grid provides employment and service only incidentally.  Those words are doublespeak for power rationing and centralized control of your household appliances by certain regulated utilities.

The so-called smart grid has five components:
      1.  Electric meters that respond to digital signals from the utility.  These meters can be remotely shut off without notice, set to limit power to your house, or set to change billing rates depending on what kind of power is being delivered.
      2.    A signaling network to carry the special digital signals,  They may be BPL on the same power lines, WiMax wireless, or on telephone lines.  You can bet that the delivery of internet via BPL over power lines will be on the agenda of these utilities, and that your tax dollars and rate hikes will be used to push this abysmal and unnecessary technology in competition to better internet alternatives.
      3.   “Phasor units”  and remotely controlled switches  on transformers and substation equipment to monitor and respond to load demands.
      4.    Control computers and software at the central nodes to send out the control commands and monitor responses to load and outages.  These will interface to the huge utility billing systems, so operators can single out a home, street or neighborhood for any kind of command or monitoring.
      5.    “Smart” home appliances that can be switched on or off by the utility.

The Current Power Structure:

Right now, every power generation station has load sensing and load production monitoring.  They can tell if another generator needs to be spun up, or if load is light enough to shut down the more expensive generators. 

Generators are designed in classes according to their ability to generate “base load” or “peak load”.   The most efficient generators running on the most reliable fuel, such as nuclear power, hydro-electric and coal/steam turbines, are those used for base power.  They run 24/7.   Smaller generators, such as natural gas driven turbines, oil-fired steam and others, are spun up and put on line when peak power is needed, such as during summer afternoons when air conditioning is heavily used.

Wind and solar power are available only at unpredictable times and they are added to the load when they are available.  Each time one of them comes on, a load adjustment must be made, spinning down a peak generator, perhaps.

The operators of the National Grid are heavily involved in switching the power from these generators to areas of usage.  They are also busy when there is an outage, routing power around stations undergoing maintenance, or adding new facilities. 

The fit between the power generation and the actual usage is never perfect.  Some expensive power is used when cheaper power is available, and there are always extra generators spinning (“spinning reserves”) simply to avoid the delays to turn them on or off.  I could not find hard numbers for the cost of this inefficiency.  I estimate it to be about 5% of power generated.  Nevertheless, power generation and distribution via the megavolt electric power lines is the cheapest and most efficient transport system of any commodity in the world, and by a huge margin.

The grid is large and complex enough to have its own peculiar and unpredictable behavior.  One example is cascading power failures.  Another is phasing issues, when the AC cycles in one part of the grid interfere with those of another, or when current and voltage go out of phase with each other, creating power phasing losses that can slow or destroy electric motors and sensitive equipment.

Finally, there is some danger that the grid can be “hacked” to cause outages, although it has never happened anywhere in the world.  Yet.

Utility Investment Cycles:

Intimately linked to any discussion of power generation is the nature of utility investments. 

Power utilities and grid managers can charge only what the state and Federal regulators allow.  Their profits are guaranteed, barring unpredicted risks.  Therefore they do not take risks.  They only change when they start to lose money and then only when the regulators adjust the rates or allow them to raise money at the risk of the public.  They pass on every cost to you, the consumer.

Long-term investment cycles are 20 to 50 years.  Each long term investment is backed up by a study of how many more kilowatt-hours they will sell, what the rates will be, and what the bond subsidies will be.  Nothing moves until the studies have cleared all reviewers and the risks to the utility are negligible.

Governments get very significant revenue from utilities in the form of direct taxes,  taxes on the power delivered, and fees on top of that.  This structure has led to a situation where the utilities have largely co-opted the regulators.   Utility rate requests are rarely denied, and, as part of the bargain,  utilities routinely go along with whatever the government wants so long as the risk is passed on to the rate payers.

Utilities support the Smart Grid because it reduces their risks and allows them to control their rate payers.    They are monopolies, so rate payers have practically no say in any aspect of the business.


Although they are rare and usually short, power outages stop factory production and lose revenue for the utilities.   They also breed irate customers.  Utilities maintain fleets of trucks and stand-by crew to make emergency repairs.  When critical nodes or substations go down, the outage spreads like fire along the branches of the network, which is shaped like a tree.  As the tree grows, inevitably that vulnerability grows with it.

The real way to minimize this risk is with the shrewd use of redundancy.   The grid must become more like a grid than the branches of a tree.  That allows alternate paths to any point on the map.  However, any time two power paths converge, there is the possibility they will be out of phase.  Phase misalignment of more than 90 degrees will destroy network equipment and household appliances.  Most industrial power supplies are over 240 volts and multiphase, which adds another complication to the phasing problem.

There are several ways to get around the network phasing problem.  One is to use DC instead of AC on critical parts of the network.  There is no phasing involved with DC, but it must finally be converted to AC for your household juice.  If at least some of the redundant trunk lines are DC, it will also be much easier to interface windpower and photovoltaic power generation, which is DC.  

The brute force way is to install phasor units at all the nodes and substations, with switched capacitors and transformers that can correct phase mismatches.  The phasor units also detect voltage droops and load problems, and communicate to the network and utility control centers.  Human or automatic responses can then isolate a problem node and correct it. 

The combination of redundancy, detection and switchable response should create a more robust power grid and limit outages to a locality.  This goal is a legitimate part of a national power grid, and it is served by some of the monies allocated.

Privacy and Power Rationing:

The unwholesome parts of the Smart Grid are those that take away your control of your power usage and your appliances. 

If more efficient usage is a the goal, there are cheap, proven and available technologies to achieve it that do not require centralized control of your home.  One such is Demand Side Management (DSM).  These devices can be attached to your hot water heater and shut it off temporarily if it detects a voltage droop or a phase imbalance.  There are a number of home control systems that will intelligently schedule and monitor your appliances.  These are under your control, but they respond to the same signals as the Smart Grid controls.

Utilities do not want to talk about Demand Side Management.  It defeats privacy issues and centralized control.

There is absolutely no reason to spend taxpayer money on giving the utilities, and therefore the government, the power to know when you take a shower or to turn your heat off if you run afoul of any one of a thousand regulations.  Never give the government or their agents such power.

But that is exactly what they will have if the current direction prevails.  Appliances will require approval for the smart grid interface that will monitor usage and send back the information to the billing systems.  The electric meter can be switched to a higher rate any time the wind blows in Kansas, or if the local nuclear power plant shuts down for repairs.  You will never be able to argue with these rate changes, shutdowns, shutoffs or any form of imposed rationing.  No judge will be given the opportunity to intervene until after the fact.  Under current utility law, the utility has a lien on your property that supersedes all others except taxes.  Good luck fighting injustice from a freezing house with no way to cook and your water pipes frozen and bursting.  They will tell you the law isn’t written that way, but rationing and control are two of the most commonly used tools of suppression by unpopular governments.   

A government that believes in redistribution must resort to rationing to do it.   Keep that fact in mind when you meekly accept the Smart Grid.

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