Good News, Bad News for Smart Grid
Some energy efficiency features may take 5 to 10 years, experts say.
July 24, 2009 by Steven Castle

You’ve probably heard about this thing called the “smart grid.” President Barack Obama has touted it. A pile of economic stimulus money has been thrown at it. It promises to make electrical energy efficiency easier and more affordable for us all. Yet the big wheels required to roll it out have only just begun to turn … slowly.

The good news is that some energy-efficiency pilot programs utilizing smart grid technologies are being conducted by several electrical utilities across the United States. And what we’re expected to see from the smart grid, eventually, are several energy-saving features:

  • Variable pricing—Your utility will likely charge you higher rates during peak hours, generally 3 pm to 8 pm, to encourage you to run things like your dishwasher or clothes dryer during less-expensive, off-peak hours. This will enable …
  • Demand response—Also known as demand-side management, in which you can automatically have the dishwasher or clothes dryer run during off-peak hours, even triggering the appliance not to start until a certain rate goes into effect. This requires …
  • Smart appliances and smart home networks—Smart appliances can be tied to the smart grid and with the help of
smart home networks can help parse the information from a local utility to operate your appliances when it’s less expensive and turn on and off other devices in a home.
  • Energy monitoringA smart grid will likely make seeing your energy consumption in real time mainstream, through easy-to-connect energy monitoring devices, smart home networks, or grid-tied services like Google’s prototype energy monitoring system.
  • Smart charging of electric vehicles—There’s a demand now for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), and in a few years we may all come home and plug in our cars for charging, during the peak time of 3 pm to 8 pm. This could cause energy shortages and higher rates, so look for smart charging options that will charge your car off-peak or in smaller amounts, depending on your needs.
  • V2G (vehicle to grid)—After smart charging of cars, look for utilities to use the power stored in car batteries to help power the grid during peak load periods.

All great stuff that can help us save energy and money. And nearly all relying on the rollout of two-way smart meters—as well as other smart grid technologies. The two-way smart meters are a key, and some projections show 40 million being rolled out by 2020. Though economic stimulus money thus far can’t fund that much.

So when will the smart grid come to your home?

This is where the bad news comes in: All this will take a while. “The idea of offering energy efficiency in the home [via a smart grid] is a five-year thing,” says Adrian Tuck, CEO of startup Tendril, which is marketing a grid-tied home networking solution to utilities and had partnered with GE to connect smart appliances. “Most people think about the smart grid as a 10-year project, and that may be optimistic,” says Tuck.

A key obstacle, he says, goes beyond the physical rollout of smart meters. And that’s regulatory. Utilities need new regulations for variable pricing, for instance, and power distribution from wind and solar farms could cross state lines, requiring a patchwork of state-by-state regulations. Yikes.

There are more than rays of hope for the smart grid, though. “In five years most utilities will be doing variable pricing,” Tuck says.

A new report called Smart Grid in 2010: Market Segments, Applications and Industry Players, by GTM Research, also looks at a smart grid rollout as a long-term project, but brims with optimism about home-based pilot programs. “While home energy ‘portals’ are still in the pilot stages; just one large-scale deployment by a major utility would be something of a tipping point for this market, and could happen as early as 2010.”



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Steven Castle - Contributing Writer
Steven Castle is Electronic House's managing editor. he has been writing about consumer electronics, homes and energy efficiency topics for two decades. He is also the co-founder of GreenTech Advocates.

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