Will new technologies democratize energy much the way the Internet did information?

Industry movement seems to point in that direction with the rise of the smart grid, time-of-day pricing, distributed solar, and the electric vehicle. Together these technologies offer a vision of a less centralized energy system, one where communities and households ‘vote in’ or shape the electric grid by how they decide to consume energy, a phenomenon also called the Energy Internet.

 Four pieces of news this week reflect a bubbling up of this trend. The first two are solicitations that innovators in this realm might want to check out. The last might be more appropriately described as energy tyranny.


Shaping the Energy Internet in Maine and Ontario

In Maine, GridSolar is working on a project that tries to solve electricity reliability problems with pinpointed, local solutions, rather than large and expensive transmission build-outs. To that end, the company has issued a solicitation seeking projects in Boothbay Harbor for 2,000 kW of energy efficiency, demand response, distributed generation or energy storage. GridSolar, working on this with a nod from state regulators, says the pilot project could avoid the need for an $18 million rebuild of a 34.5 kV line. At the same time, it offers a new, more localized way to keep the lights on. Project contracts will run three years, beginning June 1, 2013.   Those who want to propose projects must respond by November 9. Details are available at gridsolar.com.

In Canada, the Ontario Power Authority is seeking help understanding human behavior and energy use. Most electric customers in the province now have smart meters. Some have home energy displays.  These customers can see when energy prices change throughout the day and can adjust their energy use accordingly. Now that they have the equipment, what will encourage them to use it? Will the opportunity to lower their energy bills really persuade them?  Some research suggests that we’re motivated more by social cues than money. Because we’re social creatures, we are more apt to take action if our friends and neighbors do. The OPA wants to look into this more closely, so seeks proposals for four social benchmarking pilot projects. Proposals are due  November 30. The request for proposals is here.

 On a broader level, the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative released national survey results this week that raised some interesting questions. The industry is moving toward developing an Energy Internet. But is the public clued in? That’s an important question because like all democracies this one requires participation of the masses. SGCC’s survey found that 54 percent of respondents never heard of the term smart grid, about the same as a similar survey last year. The persistently low level of consumer awareness shows a real need for consumer education around smart grid, according to Patty Durand, SGCC executive director. Her group is part of a Department of Energy effort to make smart grid more consumer-friendly.


Energy despots in France?

And if events in France are any indication, the SGCC and DOE effort is very important. Understanding what attracts – and repels  – the energy consumer will be key to making the Energy Internet work. A Bloomberg report  “Power hogs targeted by France in Big Brother legislation” indicates that France may be using new technologies for energy despotism, not democracy. As told by Bloomberg, the French government would set energy quotas for each dwelling based on household income from tax returns, medical records and local weather. The pending legislation would create rewards for household conservation and financial penalties for over-consumption.

 Critics say the quota system is not only Orwellian, but also far too complicated, fraught with bureaucracy and not what smart grid technology is all about. True smart grid efforts start with understanding consumer motivation and then working with, not against human nature. In its ideal form, smart grid encourages efficient energy use through technology and price signals – something we don’t experience now. For example, the cost to generate power fluctuates throughout the day, but most consumers in the US do not experience those changes because we pay homogenized rates.  Blinded to the true cost, we may choose to do our laundry or dishes during high price hours having no price motivation to do otherwise. Technology that offers time-of-day pricing offers us the opportunity to align consumption to the market cost. By doing so, we theoretically reduce the costs to the entire system and therefore to all who use it.

Fifteen years ago, I would have sent this blog off to a publisher and  days or weeks or maybe months later a relatively small number of readers would have received it via snail mail in a paper form. Today, with a press of a button I will send it to hundreds, thousands or maybe millions (I wish!) of readers via the Internet. If the Energy Internet’s eventual promise holds true, with a push of a computer or cell phone button, consumers will maneuver energy as easily. We will see what comes.

Elisa Wood is a long-time energy writer. See more of her work at RealEnergyWriters.com.

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Tags: democracy, efficiency, energy, grid, internet, smart


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Comment by Tom DelConte on November 2, 2012 at 4:44am

I'm with Tedd on this one. Most upstaters I know just heat with wood, anyway http://www.woodheat.org/ . Upstate is defined as north of Allentown, PA & away from the coast. Heating with wood is their democratic right, & they love to drop dioxins down on their downwind neighbors!

Comment by tedkidd on November 1, 2012 at 11:59am

 True smart grid efforts start with understanding consumer motivation and then working with, not against human nature. In its ideal form, smart grid encourages efficient energy use through technology and price signals – something we don’t experience now.

 Some research suggests that we’re motivated more by social cues than money. Because we’re social creatures, we are more apt to take action if our friends and neighbors do.


Elisa, love how you see the small subtleties.  They are so important to understanding success and avoiding failure.  


We hear a lot about the upcoming democratization of energy.  But with the average consumer thinking about energy only six minutes per year, it’s fair to wonder if anyone will show up to ‘vote.’


It will be interesting to see if Opower can be more than a servant to the utility needs to flatten demand.  Do they really want to lower consumption?  I think about as much as my local Exxon wants to sell less gas. (although he certainly wishes more would show up at 2 am and fewer at 8 am.)  

Comment by Robert Riversong on November 1, 2012 at 7:53am

The Stupidity of The ‘Smart’ Grid by Blake Levitt

March 6, 2011


B. Blake Levitt is an award-winning science journalist who has researched the biological effects of nonionizing radiation since the late 1970’s. She is the author of “Electromagnetic Fields, A Consumer’s Guide to the Issues and How to Protect Ourselves,” and is on the executive board of The Berkshire-Litchfield Environmental Council.


"SmartGrids – funded to the tune of 11 billion taxpayer dollars today…will eventually turn all of our appliances into RF transceivers just like cell phones, capable of being controlled remotely by us and the utility companies. That’s every washer, dryer, computer, stove, oven, furnace, air conditioner, and on and on – all turned into cell-phone like devices. New appliances are already being equipped with internal antennas. All of these indoor transmitters will communicate with SmartMeters attached to the outside of homes and businesses, which will, in turn, transmit utility usage information several times a day, and sometimes several times a minute, to a new centralized hub (like a cell tower) coming to a location near you soon. Peak power busts of RF when a device first transmits have been measured in excess of federal guidelines. These are unsafe, involuntary exposures, especially to pregnant women and children."


"People are reporting intense headaches, “brainfog,” insomnia, and chronic flu-like symptoms – classic low-level RF complaints – within days of smart meters being installed on homes. Over 2,500 people have phoned California’s Pacific Gas & Electric with health problems. Numerous fires have started from improperly installed meters."


"Billing errors have become rampant with SmartMeters, sometimes tripling within one month of installation. Radiofequency interference is affecting other appliances, too, making them run erratically and burning out circuit boards. General radio reception is adversely affected in some homes. There are concerns regarding RF interference with insulin pumps, some pacemakers, electric wheelchairs, in-home hospital equipment and deep brain stimulators used in Parkinson’s patients. SmartMeters are also easily hacked into. Security firms have demonstrated how easy it is to penetrate the entire grid through a single meter, thereby endangering national security. Individual security is also at risk; personal information about real-time energy use can signal when people are not home. Then there are privacy concerns … what’s to stop someone from selling information about you, once they have access to how and when you use your appliances?"

Comment by Tom DelConte on October 31, 2012 at 5:22am

I guess this is all important to the big picture, Elisa, but too much for the common person. There was a general consensus last week that it's too late to stop global warming, perhaps you might address that! What's good for Exelon is good for the world, so you can pretty much kiss away any low level populist democracy thoughts about energy, although it's great to be a dreamer! I used to love those big conferences, too, then went to work finding real savings for real people.

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