New Smart Grid Initiative

June 19, 2011

This past week, the White House announced a new initiative to support the development of a “smart” electric power distribution grid.  The Office of Science and Technology Policy  summarized the announcement in a blog post.

The advent of a range of information, communications, and energy technologies provides us with an opportunity to upgrade the grid in a manner that will enable it to operate more efficiently, more reliably, and to spur innovation.

The White House also released a new report, A Policy Framework for the 21st Century Grid: Enabling Our Secure Energy Future [PDF]. The report sets out four key policy objectives in developing the smart grid.

  • Enabling Cost-Effective Smart Grid Investments: the Energy Department will collect and  publish the results of smart grid demonstration projects.
  • Unlocking the Potential of Innovation in the Electricity Sector: NIST is overseeing efforts to develop open interoperability standards for smart grid components, connected equipment, and appliances.
  • Empowering Consumers: with education and access to their own energy usage information in consumer- and computer- friendly formats, with improved privacy safeguards.
  • Securing the Grid: Improving security of the electricity distribution infrastructure against cyber threats and natural disasters.

A video transcript of the event is available here; there is also brief (3 page) Fact Sheet [PDF].

This is, in principle, a very worthwhile initiative.   I have written here several times, most recently in January, about some of the potential security and privacy issues with smart meters and a smart grid; and, as reported in an article on the announcement at Technology Review, there has already been some consumer resistance to smart meters.   Solving these problems will require some significant work, and (as I’ve said before) some broadening of the typical electric utility’s world view.  Nonetheless, the effort needs to be made.

If we are going to increase our use of renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power, we will need a distribution grid that can manage changes in power sources and loads much more nimbly than the current grid, for the simple reason that there are natural fluctuations in the availability of these sources.  For the same reason, it is probably desirable to introduce variable rate electricity charges, to give power users an economic incentive to shift usage to periods of lower demand, and thus reduce the “peakiness” of electricity demand.   This would be especially beneficial if used in conjunction with some new technologies for electricity storage, and for power-intensive applications like air conditioning.

The potential security and privacy problems are real, and won’t be fixed by superficial reassurances; as always, the devil is in the details.  The potential payoff, though, makes it something we need to resolve.


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