Kirt's Cogitations™ #251 - The New [Smart] Colossus
These original Kirt's Cogitations™ may be reproduced
(no more than 5, please) provided proper credit is given to me, Kirt Blattenberger.
here to return to the Table of Contents.
Cog·i·ta·tion [koj-i-tey'-shun] – noun: Concerted
reflection; meditation; contemplation.
Kirt [kert] – proper noun: RF Cafe webmaster.
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 Introduction.
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.
have been five massive blackouts over the past 40 years, three of which have occurred in the past nine years. The
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
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.
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
(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.
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
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 as feared.
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 intentions."
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
lifts beside the golden door.