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December 20, 2009 at 3:22 am

Message from “the edge” – SmartGrid and the consumer

This is my fifth article relating directly to SmartGrid. This is where the message FROM “the edge” also becomes a message ABOUT “the edge.” As I learned at GridWeek, the grid industry calls the electricity user community at the far end of the system “The Edge”. Graphically the system is frequently depicted that way with a central power producing entity surrounded by the web of transmission and distribution lines terminating in the end user community.

But “The Edge” does not imply “The End”. The whole purpose of the grid is to get electricity out there to drive industry, commercial endeavors, and our residential pursuits. In fact, the presence of our stable and reliable grid and an abundance of electricity has driven the modern economy and society in the United States.

In order to make sense of all of the initiatives relating to Smart Grid, out here at The Edge, we need to separate these consumers into two categories. The divide is not a sharp line, but roughly considers large consumers and small consumers independently. Large consumers would include industrial applications, large commercial users, perhaps large educational and government facilities. Small consumers could be thought of as residential, small retail and office facilities.

Large consumers have been leading the way when it comes to conservation, load leveling, and end-user generation facilities largely because businesses and other large institutions have been seeking ways to lower any and all costs associated with the operation of their facility. While electricity is relatively low cost, it is not free and in a capitalist market like the US, any reduction in cost can be a direct benefit to the bottom line. Many large facilities have put in sophisticated monitoring devices that automatically turn-off lights, HVAC, and other devices when such equipment is not in use. Some of these facilities have even explored the possibilities of co-generation with solar panel, wind mills or gas turbines on their property. When power is not being used by the facility itself, it is made available to the rest of the grid with some cost benefit to the owner.

Because large consumers have already moved much of the way down the path of conservation, efficiency and load leveling, and the solutions are considered to be well understood, there is considerable interest in how to engage and capture the small consumer potential in this area. Three types of small consumers were actively identified, but a fourth soon emerged as well. The first three were classed as:

  • those that want to save the planet – who will reduce  or shift usage without financial incentive given a means to do so
  • those that want to save money – who will reduce or shift usage if sufficient financial incentive is provided
  • those that want to “beat their neighbors” – who will reduce or shift usage in response to some competitive incentive

The elephant in the room, however, was the fourth class. Fully 90% of all small consumers in the US are indifferent to any incentives. In fact, the heavily touted “SmartGrid City” of Boulder, CO has had only limited direct participation from the small consumers in the community. Even so, significant benefits have been demonstrated with the improvements in transmission and distribution as well as large consumer participation. There was significant discussion about how to increase consumer willingness to participate.

First, why don’t consumers care? What’s up with the 90% that are indifferent and what can be done to capture their attention, or at least more of their attention.

Show Me the Money?

Electricity bills form a fairly small fraction of most households budgets. A report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that household energy costs (natural gas and electricity) were less than 4.25% of typical household spending. If a homeowner is trying to reduce household costs numerous other areas are more costly: rent/mortgage (28%), car payments (10%), food (8.%), restaurants (6%),  and recreation (6%). Energy costs are roughly equivalent to what a family spends on clothing. Consumers are far more likely to reduce in areas where little or no additional investment is required to lower costs. Eating out less often, reducing the number of cable channels, and spending less on new clothes are likely to save more money with less upfront hassle than blowing more insulation into the attic, or even upgrading a thermostat.

Trying to hit a consumer in the pocket book to get their attention would require significant increases in electricity costs. This technique will not improve what is already a tenuous relationship between government, utility, and consumer regarding electricity rates. One need only look at the reactions of consumers during the electricity price spikes in California in 2001, or more recently when gasoline went to $4/gallon.

Another concept is to introduce variable energy pricing that rises and falls with the actual costs of generating electricity. However, in order to this to work for the consumer, equipment must be installed at each home to allow the consumer to see, and manage these costs. Once again, the problem that a cost conscious consumer will look to other, more profitable ways to reduce costs will tend to limit participation in such a program.

Save the world?

So monetary incentives are unlikely to be successful. How about appealing to the altruistic nature of people? After all, much of what we’re talking about are ways to reduce greenhouse gases and other pollutants as well. Great idea! Problem? The industry is sending a very mixed message to consumers. Utilities have mixed motives as well.

Utilities make money by selling electrons. Convincing their customers to buy less electrons to save the planet makes little sense to the electricity generators. They’d LIKE to see consumers using MORE electrons, just doing it a little more consistently. In addition, the utilities want to sell themselves as good guys. Afterall, they are eventually going to want rate increases to pay for all the good things they are doing. So, most utilities are spending a great deal of time and money convincing the public (and the rate-setting commissions) that they are spending a great deal of time and money investing in methods of generating electricity that are GREEN and CLEAN.

If the same people then try to turn around and convince consumers that REDUCING their usage of electricity is going to reduce the generation of nasty pollutants, the consumer is left with a mixed bag of stuff. Many will simple ignore all of the messages.

Beat the Joneses?

OK, let’s add people to that third group, the competitors. The U.S. is famous (or infamous) for its one-upmanship culture. If my neighbor has two cars, I need two cars AND a motorcycle. It is part of the problem with the excesses in our culture today. We don’t buy what we need, we buy what we perceive we need to KEEP UP with our neighbors and friends.

Once again, the ability to sell this concept falls apart. Part of the fun of the whole one-upmanship is the ability to show off. Unless we put outside indicators of electricity usage on houses to allow the occupants to “show-off” their really LOW consumption, there is little likelihood of success. Some folks will enjoy beating the curve on the Internet and demonstrating their electricity skills, but the kick of “show and tell” just isn’t there.

So what to do? That, my friends, is another blog.

October 21, 2009 at 9:37 pm 1 comment

Message from “the edge” – SmartGrid and Distribution

This is the fourth article in my series regarding SmartGrid and we are finally beginning to get near to direct consumer contact. All of this discussion has potentially significant impacts on electricity consumers, but are parts of the grid that are “behind the green curtain”behind_the_curtain-439x356 to most consumers. Distribution is differentiated from transmission in that we are dealing with the local switchyards that step the power down from the high voltage lines and putting power out in almost spider web fashion to individual neighborhoods, businesses, and homes.

So what are the issues and SmartGrid implications at distribution?

Distribution switchyards are plagued by some of the same issues as large transmission switchyards and would benefit from some of the same detection and automation systems. Having already discussed that in my blog about transmission, I won’t repeat it here.

One of the key functions of the distribution system is to maintain quality control of the electricity as it is delivered to the home. Electricity is somewhat intangible so understanding the quality issue is important here.  Appliances in the US rely on certain consistent features of the electricity coming out of the standard 3 prong plug. This electricity should be at 120V, alternating current at 60 Hz, and adequate amperage to drive all of the appliances in the house.

In order to successfully perform this function, the systems have assumed that electricity flows only one direction, from the distribution centers outward toward the final user. Some small amount of distributed power is allowed. For example, a large industrial center might place a small gas turbine or a solar array on the roof tops to provide additional power to that facility.

distribution yard

The local utility might agree to allow the utility to push excess power from such systems back to the grid for some financial considerations. In general, these are reasonably large facilities with potential power output large enough to provide good cost benefit considerations for the transmission lines to be installed to such an installation.

However, most residential and small commercial users that have installed solar arrays, wind mills, or other residential sized power generating equipment have found that while they are free to use the power generated within their own facility, but cannot tie these units into the grid to provide power back to the system. This seriously limits the value of such systems and extends the time required to recoup the investment.

Because the current systems assumes a one way flow of electricity from the distribution systems to the final user, there are systems that trip open to protect the circuitry from electricity that is flowing “the wrong way”. These systems will have to be revised to be more sophisticated in the sensing of electrical flow to identify “good” electricity from that that is out of phase, or at unacceptable voltages or amperages for the system to accept. One concept that is currently being investigated is a “microgrid” structure where power being generated and consumed in one local area is managed somewhat autonomously from the larger grid. An intelligent gatekeeper manages the flow of electricity into and out of this microgrid from the larger grid.

Currently, the market demand for such systems that allow residential and other small volume consumers to become producers of electricity on a small and sporadic basis has been very limited. The costs to upgrade the distribution centers and the connections to the end-user to allow such endeavors to succeed are relatively high and offer minimal payback to the utility as the amount of electricity received for potential resale is minimal and unreliable as the consumer reasonably wants to service their own need first and only provide power to the larger grid when they have an excess of power to generate. In addition, very few end consumers are interested in or even willing to have such power generating devices at their homes. By some estimates, 90% of residential consumers are indifferent to electricity costs and demands today. Leaving only 10% of interested consumers, of which only a small fraction can afford the front end costs or live in a home where they have the ability to consider such an installation.

While creating such sophisticated infrastructure makes sense when whole subdivisions are being built in areas of high growth, the cost of retrofitting existing systems is not a good use of limited resources. Other, higher payback issues in transmission, storage, and generation should have more attention, time and effort spent on them before significant efforts to upgrade this portion of the grid should be considered.

Next: SmartGrid and the consumer

October 2, 2009 at 4:56 pm

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: Reuse Ideas

Last week, we talked about how “REDUCE” fits into the lives of “Practically Green” people. This week, let’s look at REUSE. REUSE is both the easiest and the hardest for those of us in the “practically green” lifestyle. We all get the concept of reusing things instead of throwing them away. BUT, so many of the ideas I’ve seen out there are either ridiculous in terms of time to remake the item (crocheting old shopping bags into a new shopping bag comes to mind – I tried it…) OR they are not items we actually WANT to have in our homes or on our persons (using old CD’s as coasters? – or converting a keg into a side table – a little too college dorm for my 50 year old tastes). This entry in my blog is going to be a simple list of great REUSE ideas that you can pick and choose from. I’m going to try to limit myself to items that require NO crafting skills, and insignificant amounts of time or instruction. More complicate ideas will be their own entries.

Reusing things? In OUR throwaway society? WOW! What a concept! How does this work? I touched on one easy idea last week as a part of REDUCING consumption. Shopping bags! In fact, these two concepts (REDUCE and REUSE) can be quite linked together. By reusing things, we are essentially reducing consumption of stuff. I try to think about REUSE as I’ve purchased something to perform some specific task, but instead of throwing it away afterward, I find another use for that thing. It’s all about reducing the amount of stuff getting sent to the landfill.

My mother was a small girl in Oklahoma during the depression. She remembers not having enough to eat every day and having to wear hand-me-downs from her older sister until almost the start of World War II. When I was growing up, she would make my lunch every day, I was expected to bring home the tin foil, and the paper bag for reuse until they were just too nasty. I was frequently picked on for this habit. Little did we know that my mom was just WAY ahead of her time when it comes to conserving resources. It turns out those little money saving tricks ALSO conserve precious resources.

Here’s my list. Feel free to add your own in the comments:

  • Margarine, sour cream or cottage cheese tubs for food storage. Need I say more? Do check the seal for the lid and make sure the plastic is microware safe before reheating your soup.
  • Water bottles refilled from the tap With Caution, most of those bottles are not intended to be refilled. I suggest only doing this for ONE day. Toss the bottle at the end of the day. BETTER IDEA: buy those bottles for your bike and fill them with filtered water. They can be washed and reused 100’s of times.
  • Shopping bags bad idea – except as small trash can liners or when you go to the grocery store. Frankly, almost all of the ideas I’ve seen look like you’re trying to use up shopping bags. If you’ve accumulated too many, take them to your nearest megamart, they almost always have a recycle bin for these. PLEASE don’t just throw them away. Bad for all kinds of wildlife when they start blowing around at the landfill.
  • Coffee mug I have so many coffee mugs. While I can give them to a second hand store, I suspect they don’t sell well. I think it’s better to find uses around the house. Let’s see: As a pencil holder on my desk (both at work and at home), as a small vase – especially the interesting ones. As a candy holder – potentially for a cute gift for those silly occasions where a small gift is needed.
  • Old tote bags and purses I’m talking about the ones that are a little too frayed for office or travel use here, not the ones the dog ate. One bag has become my garden equipment stash. Makes it easier to have all those little tools handy. Another is my mobile “to-do” paper stash. Has recipes, magazines, print-outs, etc that I need to look over and think about. Keep one in the car with car stuff that doesn’t fit in the glove box.
  • Print on BOTH sides of the paper We were astounded to discover that our run of the mill laser-jet printer could actually print on BOTH sides of the paper as a default. Turns out that many of them can. Look for “duplex” in the settings. 99% of the time, we can print stuff on both sides.
  • Paper towel cores – OK, I do have one or two uses that don’t entail turning these into Christmas decorations. I keep my silicone baking mat rolled up inside one these and stashed with my baking stuff. Also, during my big baking season (Christmas cookies, anyone?) I’ll stash parchment paper in a paper towel tube. (see the next entry)
  • Parchment paper – It can be reused 3-4 times before it gets too brittle and tears. Stumbled across this when I ran out and didn’t want to run to the store in the middle of my baking spree.
  • Shredded paper. Packing material. Skip the styro peanuts. It also works as mulch, but looks a bit strange on the plants…
  • Styro peanuts – Speaking of which… Most mailing and shipping places will take them from you instead of sending them to the landfill. OR, use them instead of rocks in the bottoms of your planters. They weigh a lot less and make the plant easier to move. Do test if your peanuts are Styrofoam or the new cornstarch based babies. Just run one under some water. If it disintegrates, you have cornstarch peanuts – put them in your compost pile or out in your garden and they’ll melt away.
  • Newspaper. Yes, it is recyclable, but far better to reuse it instead. Save newspapers if you are anticipating moving or storing breakables. The stuff the moving companies use is just “virgin” newsprint. Polish glass windows with it. Mom used to make me do this as a kid. Still works today.

Got some more ideas? Add a comment. We’ll test it and if it works well, add it!

February 16, 2009 at 9:55 pm 2 comments


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