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Green:Net on SmartGrids, Hurdles and the New Networked Car

2423929597_75de246ea5.jpgBy Mary Catherine O'Connor

At Earth2Tech's Green:Net technology conference Tuesday in San Francisco, Jesse Berst, managing director of Global Smart Energy, asserted that the smart grid is not nearly as difficult to define as many make it seem. But what will be difficult is clearing the hurdles to building out the smart grid quickly.

He said the smart grid has three parts: smart devices, two-way communication (which makes those devices smart, and pulls and pushes the telemetry data they collect) and advanced control systems and applications (which provide the controls to act on the energy demand data that the smart devices provide). But making those three parts work together is where the real work of establishing the smart grid will come into play.

First of all, we can't just rip out the old grid and add a new one. We have to upgrade the 100-year-old grid while it's running, while it's still churning out power. "This is upgrading it as a moving train," Berst explained. (This isn't a new problem, however, since the television industry has already met a very similar challenge.)

And for another thing, those smart meters and two-way communications systems and controlling software have to work. That sounds quite obvious, but by "work," the panelists are talking about "never fail." Today, we place calls on our cell phones and sometimes, if we're in dead zones, the calls fail. That's inconvenient, but it's not a huge deal. But failures in the smart grid could be catastrophic, depending how much those failures muck things up. We can't have dead zones in the smart grid.

For a third thing, all of the smart devices we deploy to measure and manage our power consumption — in our homes, cars, office buildings and everywhere else — need to be interoperable, which requires standards. And those devices need to last for a long, long time. "The cellular operators can get us to switch out our cell phones every 12 to 18 months, but we can't do this with smart meters," explained Andrew Tang, senior director of PG&E's Smart Energy Web. Standards will ensure not only that the devices interoperate, but also that makers of these devices can compete on cost, which should drive costs down.

And there's one more big hurdle to consider: security. It's kind of the big gorilla in the room when it comes to the current analog, centralized electrical grid. But once the grid turns into this new, huge computer network with two-way communications, the issue of security is going to loom even larger. As Earth2Tech pointed out just last week, smart grid hacking may already be afoot.

So why bother? For one thing, we have nary a chance of survival without completely overhauling our energy systems. Smart grids offer the ability to diversify our sources of power much more easily and reliably -- and they might even make energy cheaper. And overhauling our energy systems must include making the grid smarter, such that all of the end-points of the grid — everything from a home to an electric car — will be able to not only pull power from the grid, but also add power to it.

And this is where the smart grid gets really exciting, as was discussed during a session dubbed The New Networked Car. Here, Felix Kramer, who founded Cal Cars, an initiative to promote plug-in hybrid cars, led a panel that included reps from Coulomb and Better Place — two startups developing charging stations — as well as Rolf Schreiber, who is leading Google's RechargeIT effort to study electric cars, and John Clark with GridPoint, which makes software designed to allow utilities and regulators to better manage and store energy from various sources.

As electric, plug-in vehicles evolve, they will increasingly become nodes in the smart grid, with the ability to determine not only how much of a charge is needed to top off the battery, but also from what source that energy is derived (wind, solar, etc.). Plus, drivers will be able to consider their power needs through a macro view, allowing the electric car to offer what Schreiber referred to as "grid ancillary services." This means that if power demands are very high at the time when a driver wants to charge her car, she might decide to only charge it enough to get home, and no further (plus, using GPS and other sensors, the car will be smart enough to know just how much charge that would require). In some cases, that same car could also supply power from its battery back up to the grid, thereby offsetting the driver's costs … and turning the car into a tiny power station.

(Editor's note: Read more about this work in recent Worldchanging articles: Worldchanging Interview: Amory Lovins, Project Get Ready Aims to Create an Electric Vehicle Revolution, and Smart Garage: An Integration Revolution.)

Freelance writer Mary Catherine O'Connor lives in San Francisco, with her husband, dog, and five bikes.

Photo credit: flickr/Ian Muttoo, Creative Commons license.

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I'm fully supportive of plug-in hybrid vehicles and their ability to connect into and establish a 'smart grid' whereby their battery packs offer various benefits and advantages in energy and fuel conservation.

However, I am concerned that the focus on a 'global' energy net and long-distance transmission towers not overshadow important benefits and advantages based upon 'decentralized' homepower, particularly rooftop photovoltiac solar panels.

Households with a plug-in hybrid vehicle that may connect to its electricity system gain the means to survive a temporary grid failure. With a rooftop photovoltiac system, they gain the means to survive a lengthy disruption of the grid, and more.

There is a 'consensus' that plug-in hybrid battery packs deliver a 40 mile driving range. There is a corollary argument which infers that in many, if not most situations, they should offer only 10-20 mile driving range. Long-range conservation of energy and fuel requires an impetus to drive less. A 40-mile range may only enable the continuation of 'business as usual' which, as history shows, leads to more driving, not less.

When more of our daily trips are shorter, more of them need not always be made driving. Limiting the driving range to 20 miles creates an incentive to drive less, whereby walking and bicycling may become a more viable travel option, and mass more practical to arrange. It may be more practical to scale rooftop photovoltiac systems to the smaller battery pack. Additional advantages of the smaller battery pack are too numerous to list in this commentary. Still, they need to be a part of the discussion.

We drive too much, too far, at too high a cost and impact. Automobiles present a severe impediment to other modes of urban/suburban travel. As such, they amount to a "transportation monopoly" and a "Constitutional Inequity" which cannot be rectified under the assumption that the amount of driving we do today and expect to increase is sustainable.

I fear that many 'smart grid' technologies are based upon managing traffic, rather than reducing the need for long-distance driving and global transport.

Posted by: Art on 29 Mar 09

Mary, Thank you for the update on smart grid. Few weeks ago I was encouraged by my research on the Stimulus package for the building of smart grids. But I am glad to learn the possible hurdles you have explained - the reality is becoming clearer.

Building a nationwide smart grid seems like a colossal project. But I am excited about the new networked car and the power exchange that it can achieve with the grid. But would this change the driving behavior in America? I am more inclined to say no.

Posted by: Shilpa Amladi on 31 Mar 09

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