Recently, I was on a panel at a conference on power quality and reliability-related issues. Somewhat amazing was the amount of discussion on that buzzword that keeps going and going: smart grid. I thought my column, “Smarter than a Fifth Gridder,” in the March 2009 issue would be the last I would deal with it. But that conference and a quick search on Google set me straight.

So, as one of the participants challenged the panel, perhaps we should try to dispel some of the myths and re-enforce some of the facts. Let’s start with a relatively simple item in the smart grid portfolio: smart meters. The Department of Energy (DOE) has begun the process of launching the Smart Grid Investment Grant Program, which has smart meters as one of the Qualifying Smart Grid investments. In fact, the stimulus package is allocating at least $4.5 billion toward the installation of 40 million smart meters. What does this really do for us? Here are some of the claims that have been proposed from various sources:

1. Smart meters will help prevent blackouts by allowing the utility to shut off loads when needed.

2. Smart meters will allow the utilities to redirect electricity to where it is needed.

3. Smart meters will save money (estimated $20 per month) for residential users.

4. Smart meters will allow consumers to use electricity when it is cheaper.

5. Smart meters will show residential users how much each appliance is costing them.

6. Smart meters will improve the quality of the electrical supply.

7. Smart meters will help reduce carbon dioxide production by 5 to 16 percent by reducing peak demand.

So, let’s take these one at a time.

1. The Northeast blackout of 2003 and most major blackouts did not occur with any event within a facility. In fact, most large-scale blackouts have nothing to do with the distribution system either. Rather, it is from events occurring at the transmission system. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commision (FERC) report on the 2003 blackout indicated that it originated from lack of tree trimming activities and escalated due to failure of communication between the various entities within and between the electric utilities involved in the originating incident. Turning off loads at any number of facilities wouldn’t have solved the problem, since utilities can do that right now by opening the breakers in a substation.

2. In the case of most consumers, where smart meters would be deployed at the service entrance, the electricity flows into the facility. We already know it flows that way based on our electric bill, and the utilities know that because they monitor the outgoing power at the feeders in the substations. Reporting detailed information about each individual facility back to the system operators will require an immense communication infrastructure (read that as vulnerable to failure) and a massive (read that as complex and expensive) software system to handle all that data to reduce it to something meaningful for the system operators. That would require not just a more expensive smart meter, but one with current-interrupting capabilities equal in size to the main breakers in the facility. Did I say expensive already?

3. Meters don’t save money any more than buying something on sale saves money. It requires someone to take the information that the meters provide and decide what if anything that they want to do about it. Take the EPA sticker on a new car. If saving money through less gasoline consumption was the main motivator for buying a car, do you think there would be any vehicle offered on the market that got less than 35 mpg?

4. Right now, most residential rate structures do not include time-of-day rates like industrial and commercial rates do. Most of those rates are highest in the daytime, and with real-time pricing, get very high during peak demands on hot summer days. So if this is implemented in residential rates, do you think the average bill will go down? And what does the family do during the day, when no one is home to turn off loads? Oh, that’s right. The smart meter will do all that for them.

5. See answer No. 3.

6. See No. 2.

7. Carbon-dioxide emissions are a function of the amount of electricity produced and consumed (along with type of fuel used to do such). If the same type of fuel is used and the same amount of electricity is consumed by running some of the load during off-peak times to reduce the peak but still get the same amount of work done, then the total kilowatt-hours of consumption will basically be the same as will the carbon dioxide emissions.

Next month—what can work to reduce your customer’s electric bill and greenhouse emissions without costing a fortune?

BINGHAM, a contributing editor for power quality, can be reached at 732.287.3680.