Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Smart grid proponents have some explaining to do

We are doing a new broadband conference October 13, after an FTTH conference (September 2009) and a mobile broadband conference (June 2010). The program isn't finalised yet, but one of the thing to look forward to is smart grid and smart metering. Hopefully somebody will teach us the value of these things, because I haven't been convinced yet. In fact, I am inclined to be an opponent, as I will explain here. Since I am probably not alone erring, I hope an expert speaker will address these points:

1. Burning oil (or corn) has three issues:
a. CO2 is released, which probably causes the greenhouse effect and as a consequence forces rapid climate change upon us.
b. Oil is scarce. Burning it will only make matters worse, driving up prices and making us ever more dependent on undemocratic countries for our oil supply. Burning corn or the like is just a stupid idea, not worth elaborating on.
c. Oil is scarce, even at times (such as in the middle of the night) when there is a temporary oversupply.

2. It is in our nature to try and drive up the efficiency of oil burning and usage. People are inventing smart grids, hybrid cars and are teaching us to unplug unused battery chargers. In itself, there is nothing wrong with increasing efficiency, but at the same time, three new issues arise:
a. Focus remains on burning oil, instead of developing new and truly green sources.
b. The efficiency efforts themselves require a lot of energy and oil burning.
c. It is naive to think that enabling consumers to monitor their usage will make them more frugal or efficient. Human nature doesn't work that way.

When it comes to business decisions, it is wise to sweat your assets and squeeze every penny out of them (as in copper networks). Oil is another matter however and we need to switch over to new sources sooner rather than later. It looks like we need to stop thinking in terms of increasing efficiency. We should be more ambitious and develop new sources that provide us with an abundance of energy. Energy shouldn't be scarce any more than bandwidth.

I can't wait for the expert to address these issues.


Jeremy Penston said...

Ok, I will take your bait. I hope you are playing devil's advocate here, but let me argue the case for focusing at least 80:20 on efficiencies.

Whatever the silver bullet that you propose we find, it will be decades before we can swap our oil-based world to an alternative source of fuel. Furthermore, we are likely to have to try many different ideas before we find a better way to extract energy from nature safely.

During that time, we will need oil. We should use whatever we have in the most efficient way, not least because that reduction in power used to do a job will still be in place when oil is replaced by X.

Smart Grids are an obvious place to start because they provide information without which you cannot make efficiencies in the power that you use. Your article seems to suggest that all that info will give you is the ability to do that job at a different hour. I think that misses the point as you will also then be able to decide whether to do the job at all, eliminating the consumption altogether.

I strongly disagree with your point 2c. Try an experiment for me: your car almost certainly has a fuel consumption display. Try driving around for a few days with that figure shown on the dashboard at all times.

People are competitive as well as potentially lazy - often all we need is a scoreboard to shake off the lethargy. It may be only our own score we look at and our personal best is the only thing we are trying to beat, but feedback makes for better decisions.

If we put all our eggs in the innovation basket, all we are doing is raising the bar for that innovation to be a success.

Titus Poulus said...

Thanks Jeremy, it is a bit of a devli's advocate story, but not entirely. As to your points:

- Green sources (such as solar) are availbale, but need much more serious development and effort. I'm not sure what a Toyota Prius cost to develop, but years ago, Gillette said that developing the 3-blade razor cost USD 1 bn. Imagine - efficiency will cost billions of dollars and tons of oil - which can better be used to develop solar.

- I do monitor my own energy usage in my car, and indeed, it saves me some gas. However, I do not believe verry many people are inclined to do the same.

Anonymous said...

"The stimulus bill now going to a House-Senate conference committee has allocated $4.4 billion for "smart" technologies, including four million of these next-generation monitors, called smart meters. Proponents say that could make more effective use of existing power lines and generate employment. "