PJ Media

Myths Associated with the 'Smart' Electrical Grid

Media accounts about the electric grid, the “smart grid,” and cyber attacks have been misleading, if not completely wrong. Much hoopla and misinformation comes from vendors selling panaceas, and scaremongers selling their services.

Disclaimer: In the time between the writing of this article and its publication, this blog post came out and was linked at Instapundit. The author was completely unaware of any such industry group and any such agenda (though the issue itself is obvious), and is completely unconnected with any such industry group. This specific issue will be addressed in Part II of this article, and has no direct bearing in this, Part I.

Much has been written in the popular media and blogosphere in the past decade about the electrical power grid, some of it good, much of it bad, much of it downright silly, and almost all of it incomplete.

A good example of the silly can be found in this recent piece in U.S. News & World Report by Alex Kingsbury:

But while it may have been a technical wonder at the time of construction, the nation’s power grid has become dangerously antiquated over the past few decades. If technology in the home is racing ahead at broadband speed, the power grid is stuck back in the days of rotary-dial phones. According to industry statistics, the dog food industry spends more on research and development than the electrical sector does. Aging technology means more frequent blackouts, a greater vulnerability to computer hackers, and, perhaps most insidious, colossal inefficiency. As part of the economic stimulus package, the Obama administration has pledged $3.4 billion toward “smart grid” technology — the next generation of infrastructure, meant to stabilize the grid in the event of a failure, incorporate green technology, and vastly improve efficiency. But those billions are a drop in the bucket toward bringing the entire national grid into the 21st century, which could take decades and cost upwards of $100 billion, some experts estimate.

This is silly on several levels, starting with the comparison with the dog food industry and the internet, and the specious reference to “it” as a single entity constructed all at once. And I would question his numbers, but the article isn’t sourced.

“Aging technology” is a nonsensical term, because the technology can’t get old unless there’s a new technology in the wings to replace it, and the argument that there’s not enough money in R&D undercuts the implication that there has to be newer technology waiting. Furthermore, older analog technology can’t be more vulnerable to computer attack, if it’s not based on computers. The “colossal inefficiency” claim is completely unfounded, and as I will show, nonsensical. But then, somehow, by making everything “smart,” the system will be less vulnerable to a cyber attack than without all the computers. And that’s not even touching the “green technology” wasp’s nest, which is a whole article by itself.

Clearly this leaves a bit to be wanted in the way of an explanation. Let’s start from the beginning.

Myth #1: There exists a monolithic “national electric grid.”

The North American continent north of the Mexican border consists of a number of regional reliability councils as designated by the nonprofit North American Electric Reliability Corporation. Those are members of one of three major “interconnections,” which are essentially independent networks, with very limited ability to exchange power between them, since it must be done with expensive D.C. interconnects. The three major interconnects consist of Texas, Western, and Eastern. There are also smaller ones in Alaska and Quebec.

Myth #2: The “national grid” is vulnerable to a system-wide failure.

Because of the minimal connections between interconnections, a system failure in one interconnection won’t spread beyond that interconnection. In fact, historically, the major cascading failures in North America have all been in the Eastern interconnection, and further, have been limited to the densest portion of the Eastern interconnection. So the argument that the entire national grid is vulnerable to a system-wide failure is wrong on at least two counts: 1) any doomsday failure will be firewalled at the limits of the interconnection, and 2) history has shown us that these kinds of failures usually fizzle out, leaving most of the Eastern interconnection unaffected.

Myth #3: The federal government needs to rebuild the grid.

With the exceptions of the federally owned hydropower authorities (Bonneville, TVA), the federal government doesn’t own or operate the transmission or distribution infrastructure. It’s never been the mission of the federal government to own and operate a national grid; indeed there is no such thing. The utilities that own and operate the existing transmission apparatus should be able to finance any capital improvements the way it’s always been done — with private financing, based on expected return on investment.

There are only certain specific corridors that are under great stress. The capital improvements that must be made are not spread all over the country. Much of the existing infrastructure is at less than full capacity. There is a benefit to having wires at less than full capacity, aside from the ability to handle growth: they waste less energy. So part of the economic calculation that the owners take into account is how much power can be saved by having oversized wires.

Do certain pieces need to be replaced? Probably. But the financial mechanism for that should already be in place. There should be funds for periodic replacement of capital equipment. This is nothing new, and should be a routine matter of finance. This is basically an internal matter that their maintenance departments should be dealing with on an ongoing basis.

There is a minor federal role in regulation of the grids. NERC, the private nonprofit corporation founded to regulate reliability, operates under the auspices of the federal FERC, which has responsibility for regulating other utility networks, such as gas pipelines.

Let me repeat part of the breathless claim in the above linked article:

As part of the economic stimulus package, the Obama administration has pledged $3.4 billion toward “smart grid” technology — the next generation of infrastructure, meant to stabilize the grid in the event of a failure, incorporate green technology, and vastly improve efficiency.

This doesn’t merely suggest that “smart grid” technology will improve energy efficiency; it outright claims that it will “vastly” do so. This is nonsense. The “smart grid” (which the author never bothered to define) will provide other benefits to the utilities, and will result in some very marginal energy savings, but will not “vastly improve efficiency.” Let me explain:

The mission of the various local electrical utilities is to make sure that enough power is available at all times to satisfy demand. This, in turn, places demands on the operators of the regional systems, who then must coordinate with the various power generators to make sure that enough power generating capacity is available to satisfy the expected demand.

This becomes a problem sometimes when, for example, an exceptionally hot day results in a lot more air conditioning load that normal, which can sometimes stretch the system to the limits, requiring extraordinary measures such as rolling blackouts. Rolling blackouts, if you think about it, are a form of rationing, which is what you have to resort to when there simply isn’t enough supply. As I will show, the “smart grid,” in effect,  executes a partial semi-voluntary rolling blackout. In essence, it’s semi-voluntary rationing. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The more routine issue with this problem of matching generating capacity to demand is the fact that homes and businesses tend to demand power unevenly over the course of 24 hours. The daily peak or peaks (depending on location and time of year there can be two) are an expensive problem for the utilities. This requires them to either have large coal plants operating much of the day at reduced capacity, or additional “peaking” plants (usually natural gas turbines) that operate only a few hours a day. Either way, it’s a very expensive necessity, and the wholesale cost per kWH for peak power is rather high. Currently, this ends up being unfair to the off-peak user, who’s subsidizing the peak user.

Utilities have recognized the problem for a long time, and have billed certain large commercial customers based on time-of-day using very expensive “analog” time-of-day meters, but these meters were simply too expensive to be used on residences. But then the computerized “smart meter” arrived, and now the utilities have been interested in billing residential consumers based on time-of-day. This has met much consumer resistance.

This process has been in progress since the 1990s, and has nothing directly to do with the “smart grid” initiatives. The “smart grid” is something else entirely. It’s a buzzword for something that isn’t a grid in the physical sense. It’s a system that allows your local utility to communicate over a public network (the internet or a cell phone network) with your “smart” (internet-enabled or cell-enabled) appliances.

Myth # 4: Hackers in Russia and China can shut your house off by hacking the smart meter.

The smart meters can only observe the power going into your house. They have no shutoff or modulating capability. This is why the elaborate “smart grid” is needed in order to actually control any equipment in your house. Yes, there have been media reports that hackers can shut off power through  smart meters. They are complete 100% nonsense.

The “smart grid” doesn’t currently exist in any meaningful sense. It’s a concept. It’s a buzzconcept. Because of that, it can mean lots of things to lots of people, but strictly, it only means that certain “smart” appliances are in communication with your local utility.

This, in theory, will allow an arrangement where, in exchange for an agreement to furnish power to operate the appliance at a reduced rate, you cede control of that appliance to the utility. When the utility control room has the power switches to literally millions of appliances at their control center, they have a powerful tool for controlling demand. As I said before, this is a form of semi-voluntary rationing. Presumably, the utility will be under some sort of obligation to make sure that your appliance still performs. For example, a refrigerator or freezer could be interrupted for a half-hour or hour, without spoiling the food in it. But there’s much room for the devil in the details. These details however, will be between you and your local utility unless the federal government chooses to insert itself into the rulemaking.

Unlike the smart meters, there is a theoretical possibility of hacking a smart appliance, and having it controlled from some apartment in Moscow. This is very remote, and the risk can be managed, but it can’t be written off as impossible.

Myth #5: The “smart grid” will “vastly improve efficiency.”

All this will do, under the best of circumstances, is move the demand to a different time of day. It won’t eliminate or even reduce it. Energy savings result in the generating and transmission systems, but they’re at best marginal.

Partial truth #1: The smart grid will allow more demand to be added to the grid without building more power plants.

If implemented with a high degree of participation (a very big ‘if’), this kind of load shifting could allow more users to be served with the same equipment. What it won’t do is materially affect efficiency; i.e. fuel consumption will continue to increase.

In summary, people should avoid the mistake of applying analogies between the internet and the electrical power grid. They’re two very different things, and there’s precious little magic intelligent pixy dust to be sprinkled over the system to make things dramatically better.

But by the same token, excessive analogies to the internet have also caused people to overestimate vulnerabilities to hacking. An example of a truly transformative technology would be a superconducting grid, but until some breakthrough in room-temperature superconductors happens, which is highly unlikely in the foreseeable future, this will almost certainly remain uneconomical for all but a small handful of extremely high capacity routes.

Adding a layer of intelligence on top of the current aluminum/copper system is like adding computers to automobile engines — it’s an improvement, but it’s still an internal combustion engine, not something completely new and “vastly” more efficient.

Coming: Part II: how this relates to wind power, electric cars, cyber security and EMP.