The New [Smart] Colossus
"It is a colossal task. But it is a task that must be done." So declares the
title page of the Department of Energy's propaganda publication,
The Smart Grid: An
Ask around what peoples' opinions are the of the Smart Grid, and you will find
they run the gamut from clueless, to passionate support, to paranoid resistance.
As with so many of the advancements and implementations of leading edge technology,
my otherwise great enthusiasm for the Smart Grid is tempered by the extremists who
want to wag their hypocritical fingers in my face and tell me that if I do not embrace
their cause, then that makes me a bad person. Most of the hyperventilating zealots
are utterly ignorant of the science behind the things they bloviate over, typically
receiving their version of the "truth" from some equally ignorant soul (often a
Hollyweird celeb or network newscaster).
For many years, the existing electrical distribution infrastructure (the "Grid")
in the U.S. has been operating on the brink of failure. Demand for electric power
has increased significantly in the past two decades as both consumer and commercial/industrial
electronics have permeated all aspects of life. Computers dominate the landscape,
large screen televisions (which actually consume more power than their CRT predecessors)
can be found in multiple rooms of most homes, microprocessors control our coffee
makers, refrigerators, and clothes washers. People of all ages carry at least one
battery-powered mobile device, which has a charger sitting at home (probably, unfortunately,
left plugged in all the time). Electronic toys and tools that run on rechargeable
batteries fill the shelves. Individually, each item might not consume a lot of power,
but collectively the demand is enormous.
Add to that the increasing average square footage of houses along with a commensurate
requirement for more heating and air conditioning, and the national population growth
that increases the overall electricity needs, and it is no surprise that since 1982,
growth in peak demand for electricity has exceeded transmission growth by nearly
25% every year. Gee, it is a good thing our manufacturing base has dropped so precipitously
in the same period, or we would be in real trouble with all those motors, heating
and cooling, and process equipment needs that would have to be supplied (just a
bit of gallows humor, as the Prez might say).
As of 2008, America's electric grid consisted of more than 9,200 electric generating
units with more than 1,000,000 megawatts of generating capacity, connected to more
than 300,000 miles of transmission lines. The entire system is tied together through
a complex mesh of generation, transformers, transmission lines, switching stations,
monitoring equipment, and incredibly complex control centers. Software running the
whole show uses complex supervisory, predictive, reactive, and control algorithms
that rival space program applications. Ph.D. theses are earned in all realms of
creating, improving, maintaining, and operating this enormous Grid. The DoE claims
that even with all the opportunities for malfunctions, today's electricity system
is 99.97% reliable. That reliability number sounds good, but it amounts to an average
of 2.5 hours per year (≈1 second per hour) of power outages for you.
There have been five
massive blackouts over the past 40 years, three of which have occurred in the past
nine years. The last
major blackout occurred in August of 2003 and was triggered by
overgrown tree branches. A deficiency in communications software that coordinated
grid connections and fault isolation failed to react properly, causing a cascade
of shut-downs across much of the Northeast and upper Midwest. The Department of
Energy's Smart Grid is supposed to fix the problem.
A lot of the hysteria over the Smart Grid is focused on how the government will
be able to use smart electric (and gas and water) meters, along with appropriately
equipped appliances (ovens, air conditioners, etc.) to override personal settings
and impose a bureaucratic mandate on usage. If, as is common in southern California
during scorching summer days, the demand for electricity exceeds the system's
ability to service everyone who wants power, then, Big Brother can selectively crank
back your thermostat setting to limit air conditioners to a balmy 76 degrees rather
than the 70 degrees where you have it set. If things get really tight, maybe it
will be necessary to shut down the clothes dryers of every house in LA from 2:00
PM through 7:00 PM. You will not have any control over it. That is the fear, anyway.
Trust us, says the government, that is not a planned feature of the Smart Grid.
After all, it even says as much in that
The Smart Grid: An
Introduction publication mentioned earlier. To wit on page 14, "People
are often confused by the terms Smart Grid and smart meters. Are they not the same
thing? Not exactly."
It's the "not exactly" part that gives me pause. That means in some inexact
way, yeah, maybe - just maybe - it could possibly be the same thing.
Smart meters have been around a long time.
Way back in the early 1990s, I worked for a company that developed the first vehicle-mounted
remote meter reading system. Some pretty ingenuous people designed and implemented
the system a few years before I arrived. My job was to try to help improve it a
bit. This system used a very low power transmitter and
receiver (Tx and Rx shared a single transistor amplifier) mounted on electric,
gas, and water meters to communicate with a computer-controlled transponder mounted
in a big black box in a van. The van, intended for dense urban environments, could
be driven at up to 40 mph at a distance of up to 1,000 feet from the meters and
record 99% of the readings. Missed reading were still done manually, but the labor
expenses for utility companies were reduced significantly. The meters, depending
on their design, were capable of reporting not just consumption data, but other
information like attempts at tampering, service interruption, etc. In the works
when I left were much more complex meters that would monitor 3-phase services and
include power factor information.
Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) for the electric grid has been
around for decades. It is responsible for monitoring, reporting, and controlling
conditions on the grid. Ranging from the smallest substations to the monster switching
station yards, this is the primary system that keeps electricity flowing (to use
the vernacular) to your house and place of business. You might be shocked (no pun
intended) to learn how antiquated a large portion of the equipment is. Having worked
for an electric utility for a short whole, I was introduced to a some of the installations.
I kid you not that, at least at the time, at one of the hydro power generators on
the Potomac River actually had a belt connecting the impeller to the generator gear
box (although I never actually saw it).
At the time the engineering
office where I worked was retrofitting smaller substations with SCADA equipment
that communicated back to the main office via a 4,800 Baud telephone modem. Much
of the long distance communications between switching stations and the central control
stations was accomplished via power line carrier (PLC). I sat in on a 2-day class
for it - pretty cool considering its age. Much of that system was being replaced
with microwave communications. There might not be much PLC used any more, if for
no other reason than it would present a very vulnerable security breach point. By
the way, power line carrier is the method that would be used by power companies
to control your household appliances if the Dark Side of the Force ever gains control
So, the reality is that a couple major issues are at hand. One is that infrastructure
is enormously expensive to build, maintain, and update. Trying to implement any
new physical construction, be it generation plants, transmission lines, or switching
stations, means years of legal battles, Public Utility Commission (PUC) hearings,
citizen protests, and political processes; the familiar NIMBY (not in my back yard)
syndrome kicks in on a huge scale. Another is that the existing system is vulnerable
to equipment failure, terrorist attack, and an inability to keep up with demand;
that causes untold loss in productivity, revenue, and even loss of life (due to
lack of heat or air conditioning). Ultimately, much needed improvement is either
abandoned or band-aided yet again.
Past efforts at improving the existing system have paid out great rewards. Methods
of load sharing and load shedding, power factor correction, voluntary off-peak consumption,
updating of household and commercial equipment to more efficient models, training
people to turn off lights (yes, even to use CFL bulbs) and computers when not in
use, and a host of other concepts have managed to extend the capability of our electric
grid well beyond its original design. Compliance has been mostly voluntary through
financial incentives. Rotating blackouts have been needed in extreme cases. It could
get a lot worse.
It has been said that America's success has been enabled through our energy,
communications, and transportation infrastructure. To cripple any of them cripples
the country's ability to progress and compete in a global market. Of course, if
you are reading this and are not an American, you can apply the same arguments to
your own country. Accordingly, I am a proponent of the current plans to repair and
improve long-neglected utilities, roads and bridges, and other essential systems.
No, I do not trust the government to do or even oversee the job; fortunately, most
of the actual work will be carried out by private contractors. The Smart Grid, if
implemented as advertised, will add a significant degree of robustness and capacity
to the power distribution system (including protection against terrorist attacks).
It will take diligence on the part of the people to assure that civil rights are
not abused in the process. As the saying goes, "The road to Hell is paved with good
This is indeed the new colossus. Not one of the type written about by Emma Lazarus,
this is a looming distributed behemoth that threatens the long-term health of our
society if not addressed in a serious manner. Ignore it for too long, and those
tempest-tossed, huddled masses yearning to be free might not be able to see the
(electric) lamp that
Lady Liberty lifts beside the golden door.