The Connected Effect

Is the Smart Grid Dumb?

Posted by Dale Calder

Jul 21, 2011 12:57:00 PM

Short answer… Maybe!

A little background.   The Smart Grid is an ambitious project that was put forth to modernize power distribution in the United States and other locations throughout the world.   If you go to the smart grid Wikipedia page, you will find lots of good information.  In general, I break smart grid down into two basic objectives:

  1. Modernize the power delivery infrastructure, including ways to add power to the grid.
  2. Enable the intelligent control of end point consumers of power in order to reduce demand.

Item #1:   Cool.  I have no problem with this objective.  It sounds to me like making a better widget.  Makes sense and should be done.

Item #2:  I also like this idea, but am completely against the direction the industry has taken in solving it.

For Item #2, there is an old saying that my father used to tell me - “if the only tool you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail!”  The industry’s approach to smart grid is very much down this path. 

Let me explain.

At the end distribution point of the grid is the electric meter.  The historic job of the electric meter is to measure the amount of electricity used so that the customer can be billed.  So far, so good.  The original method for getting the meter read was good old fashion sneaker net - a human walking to every meter and writing down the reading.  Slow, expensive, and error prone.  

Along the way, someone had the idea that if a meter could phone home (wired, cellular, or to a drive by truck), much money would be saved… The smart meter was born!  The smart meter measures how much electricity I use and it automatically reports my consumption to the utility.   Makes sense.   So far, so good.  

Now here is where smart grid took a wrong turn.  

Because there is a meter at the very end point where electricity is distributed and that meter has computing power – it seems only logical to have that meter do more.   In fact, wouldn’t it be great if that meter were able to CONTROL the electricity consuming devices and appliances at the utilities behest.  For this benefit, the utility could provide discounts to the consumer and reduce overall peak load on the grid.   Sounds like mom and apple pie, right?


There are so many things wrong with this idea that it actually shocks me that people take it seriously.   For example:

  1. To provide fine tuned control of an end site, I still have to build connections from the consumers of the electricity at a location to the meter – no trivial undertaking.
  2. What human in their right mind will actually turn over on/off control of their electricity to a utility?   It reeks of Big Brother.
  3. Practically speaking, a central control system of this magnitude is beyond the core competency of the utility.
  4. Can you imagine the utility actually troubleshooting this system if something went wrong? I can’t.
  5. Did I mention that it sounds a lot like Big Brother to me?   Government utility controlling my home?  Yikes!

I call this approach to smart grid – utility centric smart grid.  I don’t like it.

Individuals like control.   Corporations like control.   The utility having an off switch for my stuff is bad.

So how can we get the obvious benefit of demand control and take this fundamental of human nature into account.  Perhaps we should look at it from another direction. Instead of controlling via push (i.e. Big Brother), the solution should be consumer lead, i.e. pull.  The utility still has a role, but it is through policies, universal access to those policies, and perhaps standards.

My smart grid vision is consumer centric.   A consumer centric smart grid would center on individuals and corporations controlling the behavior of their devices and appliances.   Think of it like Netflix.   Netflix provides me a single login and lets me consume content across a wide range of devices.   What if, instead of Netflix, there was a web presence that I could access from my smart phone or computer where all of my products were known.   From this web presence I could configure the behavior of all of these products, provided they had some simple smart grid extensions – think next generation of energy star.   This web presence could stay in contact with the grid, keep track of its current status, and affect my products based on my configuration.   I may be willing to not wash dishes until the middle of the night, but don’t touch my heat.   In the end, it will be up to me to determine the level of aggressiveness that I want.  See Figure 1, Consumer Centric Smart Grid for a description.

 describe the image

For simplicity sake, let’s consider a single large consumer of electricity at my house, the air conditioner.  I am envisioning that my air conditioner has a connection to the Internet, perhaps piggybacking my local Wi-Fi connection.   I expect to log into a cloud-based application, either provided by the air conditioner manufacturer or a trusted third party that enables me to configure the smart grid behavior of this air conditioner.  This application should access the policies and current situation from the utility and send the appropriate desired behavior down to my AC unit.  The AC unit itself or a third party add-on will actually perform the smart grid algorithm.  

The benefit of this approach is that I, the actual consumer, have more fine-tuned control over my grid utilization.  I can be more aggressive or less, I can change the behavior at a whim, perhaps from my iPhone.  I can use a third party application or something provided by the product manufacturer itself – in the end I am in control. 

To enable this vision, we need to shift the focus of the smart grid initiative from a push-orientated big-brother type of control to one that encourages cloud-aware products and provides a series of standard interfaces on those products that promote smart grid applications development.

In my next blog, I am going to talk more about these connected products and how they can serve a world of applications that can affect their behavior, including those related to smart grid



Topics: M2M, smart grid

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