Dialing in the smart grid at GE in Niskayuna. (Jim Motavalli photo)
NISKAYUNA, NEW YORK-We hear a lot of talk about the "smart grid," and it sounds high-tech and cool, not to mention just around the corner. A look at how General Electric is preparing for this brave new future was both exhilarating and sobering.
Exhilarating, because it promises to give consumers considerable control over their energy efficient destiny. We'll be able to order our energy-conscious appliances to run only when the time-dependent rates are low, and switch to half-power when peak use sends those rates soaring. We'll see our real-time power use displayed on "smart meters" and home energy managers. We'll plug in our cars, and let the grid decide on an optimal charging time.
Sobering because it isn't here yet, and won't be tomorrow either. There are 140 million electric meters in use in the U.S., and just making them "smart" will take at least 10 years, GE officials said. Replacing all the transmission lines that make our grid "dumb" -- ie, unable to move wind power generated in North Dakota to, say, New York, where there's a big population waiting to use it -- will take much longer and cost much more. Estimates of total cost range from $100 billion to $2 trillion.
The Obama administration's $11 billion in smart grid stimulus funding certainly helps, but even the most optimistic estimate sees a relatively long timetable and huge investment for the full vision to be realized.
While at GE, I watched a technician simulate what it would be like for the grid to take control of my power use, and visited the "kitchen of the future," a row of cutaway appliances (with neon tubes substituting for stove burners) at General Electric's Global Research HQ in Niskayuna, New York. A computer monitor would allow me to cut my dryer's electric use from 4.5 to 2.5 kilowatts when rates spike (and increasing drying time in the process, of course).
GE unveiled what it called the "Net Zero Energy Home" concept, but it didn't say whether it would actually build one for us to play with. An Ipsos poll commissioned by the company shows that three out of five people would "change their electricity consumption behavior" after the smart grid was introduced, because they could see how, for example, leaving a light on affects their bill. Some 73% of respondents (in the U.S. and the UK) wanted to learn more, and half of Americans (a third in the UK) were willing to pay more per month for smart grid benefits).
Electric vehicles (EVs) are also part of the smart grid, of course. In fact, its appearance appears to be neatly timed to coincide with the first plug-in hybrid cars -- which will mostly be charged during off-peak hours. According to GE's Natarajan Venkatakrishnan, charging an EV uses as much power as your whole house is likely to consume in a day. If every plug-in hybrid owner came home and plugged in at 6 p.m., grid disaster could soon ensue.
EV startup companies, from Aptera to Bright Automotive, are equipping their cars with software to interact with the smart grid when it's available. My guess is the cars will be on the road before the grid is ready.
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