Public Lukewarm About the Smart Grid, Despite Benefits
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I had the honor of being within a few feet of a barn owl this weekend at the wildlife festival at the Southern Vermont Natural History Museum. Kept alive after being injured years ago and now a frequent visitor to classrooms and museums, this bird ... Demand response and the smart grid Or let's say you were the utility, and on a hot summer day when everyone's air-conditioners were cranking up, you'd like to be able to crank something else down--like say, everyone's washing machines--to smooth out demand. Doing so might help you meet demand with more efficient "baseload" power plants, keeping generally less-efficient "peaking power plants" offline. In these cases you might want to have a "smart grid." The "grid" part of the equation is the network that conveys electricity from plants to consumers. It includes power lines, substations, transformers, and switches. Just like a "smart" phone opens up a world of applications that come from adding a computer to your phone, the "smart" part of the grid means computerizing the electric utility grid. Appliances and other potential innnovations All the meters, voltage sensors, fault detectors, and more, are enabled with digital sensors and two-way digital communication. The central utility can "listen" to the devices and adjust and control them from a central location. One potential smart-grid innovation is for appliances within homes to be embedded with devices that would allow them to receive signals from the utility telling them when rates are favorable for turning themselves on or performing energy-intensive functions, like automatic defrosting on a refrigerator. General Electric is putting this technology into refrigerators, ranges, clothes washers and dryers, dishwashers, and microwave ovens. (It says that customers will be able to override the automatic functioning.) One study in Washington State showed that consumers, armed with devices informing them of favorable times to use energy-intensive appliances, saved money. Public distrust of utilities and smart meters Widespread deployment of smart grid technologies may be a ways off, however. As Alan Meier wrote earlier this year in Home Energy magazine ( My Friend the Smart Meter ), utilities, regulators, and governments have done a terrible job in deploying smart meters. Weak public relations and policy efforts have left a vacuum of public opinion, which has gradually filled with distrust. Chart: Some critics have raised concerns about radio frequency (RF) emissions from smart meters. As shown in this chart, risk of exposure is very low compared with the risk of RF exposure associated with other common devices. RF exposure from cell phone use, for example, is many orders of magnitude higher--in part because the device is used right next to the head. Source: EPRI As Meier wrote, "The balance of benefits from smart meters overwhelmingly favors the utility. Among other features, smart meters permit time-of-use pricing. This is a sensible idea, and if consumers carefully limit their electricity demand--yet another complex technical concept to understand and manage--they will get lower bills. But without simple in-home devices and controls, a great many customers will enjoy few or no financial benefits, no matter how hard they try to manage demand. Then, to add insult to injury, privacy restrictions won't even give customers ownership of their consumption data. Right now, some customers can't even access their data." (See Maryland for an example of a failure to get the public on board due to concerns about pricing.) Are wireless devices a health hazard? Furthermore, some people have been freaking out about the radio waves generated by smart meters , which use wireless technology to transmit data to utilities. As power and gas companies have begun installing them, some customers have protested (with a few reporting the onset of mysterious illnesses after installation), and some studies have claimed that radio frequency exposure might exceed U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) limits. Although the objectivity of this study is challenged by smart meter opponents, one industry investigation, using empirical data from two areas in California, found that the exposure risk from smart meters is much lower than that associated with many common household items that people use frequently and keep much closer to their bodies, like cell phones and microwave ovens. Tristan Roberts is Editorial Director at BuildingGreen, Inc., in Brattleboro, Vermont, which publishes information on green building solutions.