The trend towards smart metering is of little benefit to consumers. The potential savings for the utility consist of eliminating meter reading jobs, automating connect and disconnect services (transferring these costs to society in the form of unemployment benefits in areas where the unemployment rate is high) and helping with the identification of power theft. The paper “Unlocking the 53 billion savings from smart meters in the EU:How increasing the adoption of dynamic tariffs could make or break the EU’s smart grid investment” calculated a loss of between 10 to 25 billion euros that could only be filled only if new power rates for peak periods resulted in a large reduction in peak usage, which in turn would allow the generators used for peak power to be used less. This of course, is highly dependent on where you live. The far north using diesel, or a predominantly hydroelectric grid would have little potential for savings. The largest savings would be in areas where the generators used for peak power are far more expensive to operate than the base load (coal, hydro, nuclear) generators, or where reducing load might allow more subdivisions to be built before new transmission lines were needed.
The chief disadvantage is that the cost of implementation will be billed back to consumers, and its use as an enabler for new, more profitable business models which in turn fund larger “green” schemes. The smart grid initiative does nothing to reduce our dependence on vast quantities of energy. The word “smart” is just marketing and propaganda to make computerized billing sound like a noble idea. Predatory or Opportunistic billing is a better description. It is also a small component of the 500+ billion dollar “smart grid” initiative which I cover here..
There is nothing intelligent about a smart meter. They are simple computerized meters with the brains of something like a microwave oven. They can send data to another computer and keep track of how much energy was used in various time slots. You can purchase your own smart meter for about $200 if you want real-time feedback of your energy use for educational purposes. The educational benefit can also be achieved by using a plug in $30 meter like the Kill-A-Watt and reading a few books.
As for supporting grid tie operations (PV on your roof with the excess sold to the grid), this is better done on a case by case basis rather than updating millions of meters on houses that will never have a $30,000 PV system on their roof.
Another potential benefit is being able to collect detailed energy usage data in real-time. This is of very little use given that power demand is already known at the substation level which in some cases, comes down to a few city blocks. If the government really wants to understand usage patterns, all they need is to select a statistical sample (e.g. install a few hundred meters randomly) and collect data for a year. Collecting everything is wasteful and adds little value.
Can peak demand really be shifted?
Starting with the largest potential benefit to the grid, flattening demand, we should be asking “Will it do this?”. If you do shift the load, what do you shift?
Peak demand varies depending on where you live. In warm areas, peak demand is likely due to afternoon air conditioning loads, with smaller peaks at meal times. In a province like Newfoundland that uses a great deal of electric baseboard heating, the peak period is all winter long and requires a thermal generator full time. Adjusting peaks in the summer would achieve very little since the system is underutilized and primarily hydroelectric.
In Newfoundland’s case, shifting heating to Spring isn’t going to work. Electric hot water can be shifted with a timer (commonly done in Europe) so that it turns off at 6am and assuming a tank large enough for a morning shower vs on-demand types. However if the grid is so overloaded that electric hot water tanks are a problem, then it would be more effective to create an incentive to use natural gas, perhaps working with the gas distributors to ensure it is always the cheaper option.
Most little things can be shifted (later meals, nocturnal laundry, using the delay button on the dishwasher, etc.). However, they are so small compared to heating and cooling as to be insignificant with respect to billing yet massively inconvenient. Customers won’t understand the math, and will endure all sorts of inconvenience, afraid that if they don’t, their bills will be even higher and that it will be their fault.
Air conditioning in the summer is always in peak periods. You will either pay peak or sweat. A far better solution is to reduce cooling loads by enforcing improved building standards, not by exposing a sizable hunk of the population (often unemployed or elderly) to heat stroke.
If it was possible for everyone to adapt en mass and they managed to lower their bills, how long would it be before the utility company obtained a rate increase or time of use adjustment to counteract the resulting decline in revenue?
With respect to adoption rates, the above article notes:
Perhaps unsurprisingly, these studies have found a stronger DR (demand reduction) when more sophisticated,and more expensive, enabling technologies are used than when the customer still has to intervene to reduce demand.
This means that customers that need to shift demand to keep their rates down are going to install hundreds or thousands of dollars of new equipment, or be forced to micro mange their power usage keeping track of the latest rates and the clock. As a practical example, a consumer could have an electrician install an axillary service panel with a relay such that it turns off during peak periods. Various outlets could be rewired to the new panel so that the hot water tank, deep freeze and fridge were connected to it. The major inconvenience of course is that you’d have no light in the fridge and appliance settings might reset to factory defaults. New appliances will no doubt appear with behavior like shutting off the compressor (of a fridge) while keeping on the ice maker and lighting. Buying all new smart grid enabled major appliances would be a terrible waste if the existing ones are modern and already quite efficient.
What is really driving this?
Business. The conservation/green argument is camouflage. If Canada’s political system was really interested in ecology, they wouldn’t have crapped on the Kyoto protocol. Lets look at the cash flow:
- To support new billing models, mechanical meters will require replacement with computerized meters. This is a significant cost, but one that will be billed back to consumers so the power company really doesn’t care what it costs. Potential savings from catching basement grow-ops and power theft will not materialize, especially since these people are unlikely to become paying customers and the only loss was the generation cost (not the customer rate). Expect to pay $300 or so spread over future bills to pay for a smart meter and installation costs.
- New meters allow remote reading which allows all those contract meter readers to be laid off and improves the corporate bottom line. The capability to connect and disconnect services remotely could be added to eliminate many electricians.
- New computer systems, such as upgrading the old mainframe system to SAP (an ERP software vendor) are required. Billing used to be really simple, but time of use generates a whole lot more data that the old systems cannot handle. A SAP implementation can cost a few million, and all the way up to 100 million in botched, multi-year projects implemented by the big guys like Deloitte. This isn’t a problem for management, because the favor will be returned if senior management wants work for the IT vendors afterwards (they may become a managing director), plus the overruns can be charged back to consumers as higher rates.
- The price premium for peak usage will be high enough to generate significantly increased revenue and allow creative business models. After that, it is a game to predict the optimal combination of times and rates to maximum demand and profit needed to pay for the “smart grid” and their growing empire. This is a business after all, and the only thing that matters is cash flow. Even non profit organizations like to generate more revenue because it allows their empires and expenses to expand, and to pay more to their executive. See this salary list: PARKINSON, TOM – President/CEO Hydro One/Ont Power Generation $1,106,668.21 or 2,484,945.89 Ontario Power Generation HANKINSON, JAMES F – President/CEO. Nalcor’s CEO Ed Martin made $505,700 which is more than four times the salary Newfoundland former premier Danny Williams used to donate to charity. The power industry pays its executives very well. How often do you think a public utilities board denies a rate increase because power industry executive salaries or operating expenses were too high?
Some people worry that smart metering and remote reading via RF (radio frequencies) is a health risk. This is possible of course but highly unlikely. Power companies love arguments like this because public health departments will back them and most of the public will discount the naysayers as the fringe. There are far better arguments — economic waste, increased prices, industrial collusion, governmental corruption and zero progress towards sustainability.
Let’s consider that RF can indeed cause cancer in some circumstances. The damage due to RF is a function of its energy content — the more powerful (like inside your microwave oven) the more dangerous. If you move twice as far away, it the energy per area drops by 1/4. Four times further away, and it is 1/16. This is important, because whatever emanates from your wireless router, remote meter, TV remote control etc. is absolutely nothing compared to pressing a cell phone to the side of your skull. Until people believe that cellphones can cause health problems, you will never convince the general public that something ten thousand times weaker will be a health problem.
If you have university library access, you can search all the worlds research journals for free and look for papers that look into health and RF issues. You will not find any peer-reviewed literature to support low powered RF transmissions causing health problems. In the extremely unlikely even that you do, I’d be happy to download them and post links here. It is a good thing really — with WiFi and cellular networks everywhere, Bluetooth headsets around our ears and cell phones pressed against our heads, we’d all be sick by now.
It is possible that some utility companies are using high powered transmitters which could conceivably be dangerous when the meter is a foot away from a bedroom wall. A quick look at the trading site Alibaba.com finds many that claim a 1W transmit power. The maximum permitted transmit power of a hand held GSM cellphone is between 1 and 2 Watts depending on the band, however, phones automatically reduce their power level when the cell tower is near by. 1 Watt is excessive if the goal is to communicate with equipment on a nearby telephone pole and a huge liability if a clear health link is ever established. For more on the bewildering array of communication technologies, see the American Radio Relay League’s comprehensive page called Electric Utility Communications, Applications and Smart Grid Technologies.
Professionals to the Rescue?
Unfortunately no. Professionals like engineers and doctors do, in many cases, have the breadth of training to see the problems and their potential solutions. They are however, trapped in a system where to be “professional” also means they have to follow the unwritten political rules designed to maintain the staus quo. Any engineer that dares make a public statement exposing the stupidity of some government plan, or worse yet, his own employers motives — is likely to be fired. Even Canadian Government employees can be suspended for talking. This is also true for non tenured university professors. There are always a small percentage of oppositional professionals that have the guts to speak up, and these are the people that we need as leaders. Of course to do that on any scale, wholesale changes are needed to the political and voting process so that people without financial backing and media support (which is controlled by a few wealthy individuals) can get elected.
If you are a professional I encourage you to speak up, even if it is an anonymous blog posting. I will host it for you. Find some other like minds and support movements for change. There are enough of you to make a big difference. Borrow the book called “Disciplined Minds” and you will understand where I am coming from. It should be required reading in all Canadian engineering schools and to counter the propaganda from the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board.
What should be done?
Looking at a larger picture, economics as if people mattered, we see dependency on non-renewable resources. This is the essence of un-sustainability. The oil from the Hibernia oil field in Newfoundland is already half gone. The goal should be to slash energy usage so that Canadians can live off hydro power and local generated power (solar, wind). Since the largest residential loads are heating and cooling, that is the place to start. Rather than variable billing rates via smart metering and attempting to change peoples habits, consider these permanent solutions that require homeowners to do nothing and which would result in vast energy savings:
- All new homes should have a southern exposure with extensive glazing (for solar gain). This requires layout changes to all new subdivisions.
- North walls should have no windows. They lose far more heat then they ever gain via sunlight, and the R-value of a window is only about 4. The walls around them by comparison are at least 20. This guarantees that all those new homes with dozens of windows will be energy hogs until the day they are bulldozed or their windows are removed.
- Insulation standards should be vastly increased (double wall construction), and local materials allowed (saw dust, newspaper, or local climate appropriate material instead of expensive fiberglass or flammable plastics)
- Heat pumps can be 4 times more efficient than baseboard heaters — offer interest free loans to home owners.
- Universities should be tasked with designing free home plans and construction techniques (patent and royalty free) that are climate specific for their area and which minimize energy consumption to the point where a small solar array could provide the electrical needs. Unfortunately, many universities are now obsessed with patenting everything, selling naming rights to buildings in return for corporate sponsorship, and get to keep 60% of the royalties of any patent a grad student or professor submits. I’ve suggested putting things into the public domain (at a public university) and got the same hostile, incredulous reaction you would saying that in a corporate boardroom.
Passive technologies are vastly superior in the long run and immune to future energy cost increases. Have a look at the solar passiv institute to see what Europe is doing. Any university with an engineering or architecture school can do this. There should be a financial penalty for any new home that does not meet basic thermal standards. Industry will object. Citizens must make it clear that governments that support industrial greed over the needs of the population will be removed from office, otherwise it will be business/government as usual.
There is also a very real privacy issue with monitoring anything that can be a proxy for human activity. If I set up a smart ventilation system that senses C02, then I know when you are awake or asleep and how many people live inside. Same for power demands. I can see the day when subpoenaing power records will be common. I can also see police warrants because that new electric hot tub was flagged as a basement grow-op, or that anyone with an electric hot tub is automatically suspected of using it as cover, while actually heating it with propane, the power being used for lighting. Data will be collected and mined. It will be abused. The only solution is forbid its central collection.