My Smart Grid Experience

By Kennedy Maize

Here’s further evidence why I believe the current smart grid hoopla is bogus, and North America should be focusing on a strong grid instead.

I live on a small farm in rural Maryland, some 60 miles northwest of Washington, D.C. My electric company is Allegheny Power, a distribution subsidiary of Allegheny Energy, based outside of Pittsburgh. I have no big-picture complaints about Allegheny Power, although it does seem to kick off momentarily more often that I would like.

The parent company once had a radio advertising campaign talking about an “Allegheny Energy moment.” My wife and I, who both rely on our computers for our living, used to laugh about the off-on outages, just enough to shut down the PC and destroy the current file, as “Allegheny Energy moments.” The company no longer has those ads running in my area.

This week, on Tuesday and Wednesday, we had real outages — more than two hours each. I know the cause of the Tuesday outage — lasting from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. According the utility’s computerized voice recognition customer service software (it speaks very slowly and carefully and is really stupid), it was a tree down on a power line. No big deal.

Wednesday’s outage remains a mystery. The Allegheny Power computer voice (can we call him Hal?), which recognized my voice just fine on Tuesday, couldn’t understand me on Wednesday. It was 3 p.m. and I hadn’t been drinking, so I don’t know what was going on, but I persisted and enunciated as clearly as I could and pressed enough numbers on my old-fashioned, keep-ready-when-the-electric-power-fails, touch-tone phone (remember those), because my cell phone connection to the utility customer service center stinks. I’m always amazed that when I lose power, I don’t lose phone land-line service. Same poles.

So I eventually got through to a real, and very nice, young woman to report the outage. I told her the details, and my address. Then, to my astonishment, she asked me for driving directions to my house, in case the repair crew had to work on the transformer that connects my farm to the distribution grid.

“You don’t have MapQuest of Google Maps?” I asked. Not on her computer, which was down at the moment, but didn’t have Internet access in any case. “The computers are down more often than they are up,” she said. “Particularly when there are power outages.”

The crews don’t have GPS systems? Nope, probably too expensive for corporate.

My jaw dropped. Good GPS systems are available at $200 or less for individuals. I suspect a large electric utility could buy them for a lot less per unit. And I suspect they could be easily tied into the utility’s SCADA system. No brainer.

And that’s why, in my judgment, the smart grid won’t ever come to pass. The folks who run our electric grid today are brainless. Old, entrenched, mature industries, as many business analysts have observed in the past, are really bad at innovation. That applies directly to electric distribution utilities. It’s true for power generators, but much more for distributors.

If utility managers can’t figure out the value of satellite navigation systems for repair crews, what hope is there for smart toasters and time-of-day pricing?

The most important task, when it comes to today’s grid, is to get it beefed up, interconnected, and operationally rationalized. The EPRI lemon-meringue-pie-the-sky smart grid will never come to pass in the lifetime of anybody alive today. Nor should it, if we can’t get the basic grid right.

When it comes to transmission and distribution interconnections, I’ll take robust over smart any day. I’ve been hearing about smart houses, and smart appliances, and smart grids for a quarter of a century. They’ve never made any sense to me.

Among the daunting, maybe show-stopping, issues for the smart grid are communications protocols and standards, the cost of data-pushing dongles on power lines, and whether the smart grid is the high-voltage grid, or the local distribution grid, or both. The smart grid concept doesn’t work unless it includes the big pipes and the little pipes. That’s a mind-boggling task. It makes reforming U.S. health care look trivial.

So, as far as I can tell, all the hand waving (and money spending) on smart grid technologies is fluff. Let’s focus on getting power to people 24/7/365, not controlling their refrigerators and cycling their AC.