These original Kirt's Cogitations™ may be reproduced (no more than
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Cog·i·ta·tion [koj-i-tey'-shun] – noun: Concerted thought or
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,
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
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.
says the government, that is not a planned feature of the Smart Grid.
After all, it even says as much in that
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 transmitter and
superregenerative 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
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).
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.
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
Lady Liberty lifts beside the golden door.