The New [Smart] Colossus
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
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
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.