Yesterday you may have heard President Obama refer to Boulder, Colorado as the nation’s first Smart Grid City.
Great - but what is a Smart Grid?
Simply put a Smart Grid is an electrical distribution grid that has integrated intelligence to facilitate the remote monitoring, management and control of the electrical supply. Smart grid technologies are intended to allow customers to determine when, where and how they use energy. The claim is that the technology will allow better monitoring, management, conservation by increasing the awareness of energy use and it will enable external communications with home based “intelligent “appliances. The promoted benefits include energy cost savings, smarter energy management, better grid reliability, greater energy efficiency and conservation options, increased use of renewable energy sources and support for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and intelligent home appliances.
In April, Xcel Energy and its Smart Grid Consortium partners completed their planning in Boulder and kicked the project off with orders for equipment, including 15,000 smart meters. In May, the company began the implementation of the smart grid network and started construction on the SmartGridCity Control and Operations Center. SmartGridCity is a multi-phase project, which is expected to be complete in December 2009. If you would like to dig further go to Xcel's Web site for more info.
So what improvements can the residents of Boulder expect as this program rolls-out?
• New metering systems will be installed that will not only measure electricity use but be capable of real-time, high-speed, two-way communication of that information with the rest of the power grid.
• Existing substations will be converted which transfer power from big transmission lines to smaller distribution networks, to "smart" stations capable of remote monitoring, near real-time information collection and distribution, and better performance.
• Customers will be given to those who want them, programmable in-home control devices and systems to fully automate home energy use.
• The grid connections will be upgraded to support off-site power generators and storage units such as solar panels on homes, battery systems, wind turbines, and hybrid electric vehicles that can pull power from the grid and delivery it back to the grid on command.
All are very laudable objectives but let me raise a caution flag. If integrated grid intelligence can help consumers manage their energy consumption and can communicate, real time, with consumers intelligent appliances, is there not the potential that it could evolve as a tool for the regulators.
The assumption being made with this thought is that we are moving to a time where voluntary conservation will be replaced with regulatory obligation. Each of us have our own degree of anxiety, or not, with this possibility but how comfortable would you be if you knew that an external authority controlled the electricity flow you need to power your compute resources?
A bit Orwellian but not inconceivable!
Action Item: Smart grids are coming to a utility near you. Users should expect a trend towards embedded instrumentation designed to measure energy consumption down to the device level and time will tell if regulators exploit this technology to control and potentially tax energy usage. It is apparent however that a more conservation-focused administration combined with increasing data center heat densities does mean that IT will increasingly be accountable for the energy costs of technology equipment and that would not be a bad change.