Smart is dumb

(March 4, 2011) Lawrence Solomon argues that plans to spend trillions on ‘smart grids’ will collapse.

Power companies around the world are planning to spend trillions of dollars building smart grids — next-generation marvels likened to the transcontinental railroad and the Internet because they are seen as revolutionizing society.

It won’t happen. The smart grid is nothing more than a politically driven fantasy that has no economic rationale other than to support politically favoured technologies that themselves have no economic rationale other than to save the world from global warming. And on global warming the public in most developed countries, public opinion polls show, has already spoken: Global warming is a non-problem.

To understand what the smart grid is supposed to be, and supposed to do, think Internet by analogy: The power company would be akin to an Internet service provider, the smart grid akin to the Internet network, the electric vehicle in your garage and solar panels on your roof akin to the laptops, desktops and video game terminals in your home. Instead of downloading movies or uploading computer files, you’d be downloading power for the electric vehicle in your garage and uploading electricity from your solar system to the grid, for use by others.

Sounds dandy, except the analogy falls flat on economic grounds. The Internet network, which is profitable, carries high-value data such as movies, which are profitable, from laptops and other capable devices, which are profitable. In contrast, the smart grid, which is unprofitable, would carry mostly low-value electricity, which is unprofitable, from solar panels and other incapable devices, which are unprofitable. The massive subsidies that governments are providing to the smart grid, in fact, are attempts to somehow overcome the drawbacks in the incapable electricity technologies that governments are backing.

Solar technology is incapable because its availability cannot be accurately predicted, raising the risk of power disruptions and blackouts. On a sunny day, passing clouds can instantly eliminate much of the power the electricity system depends on. Several days of low dense cloud cover can reduce the output of a solar panel by more than 90%, even in summer. Storms add to the unreliability, particularly when sticky snow adheres to the solar panel, rendering it useless for days or weeks at a time and causing no end of consternation to utility managers who need to compensate for the unexpected loss. Too much sun is also a problem — Germany’s energy authority fears strong afternoon sun coupled with low demand for power could crash the country’s power grid.

That consternation from solar panels is as nothing when wind power is concerned. The wind can and does die down suddenly over vast geographic expanses, causing utilities to lose up to 99% of the wind power they had expected. As worrisome, the wind can just as easily rise up unexpectedly, overwhelming the power grid. Whether there is too much or too little wind power, blackouts again loom.

Unlike most conventional power plants, solar and wind technologies can’t be powered on and off as needed to meet the varying demands of customers. These still immature renewable technologies, prematurely brought to market by politicians seeking alternatives to fossil fuels, are entirely hostage to the weather.

The smart grid would solve the problem of instability by controlling the customers instead of the technologies. To protect the grid from sudden drops in the power being produced, for example, the smart grid engineers would reach into our homes and businesses to instantly turn off our refrigerators, freezers, washing machines, air conditioners, and other smart appliances as needed to match the sudden power losses.

The smart grid and the smart meters with which they are integrated would control customers in other ways, too — by changing our lifestyles to have them better conform to the technologies the politicians have chosen for us. Here the smart grid engineers would reach into our pocketbooks, by pricing power cheaper in the middle of the night, on political criteria, to encourage us to soak up an excess of power that their anti-fossil fuel scheme has produced. Most of that excess power, they fantasize, will recharge the batteries of our electric vehicles as we sleep. But electric cars are going nowhere, the marketplace has made clear — they remain unaffordable even with big rebates on the vehicle’s purchase price.

Neither will wind and solar systems go anywhere — cash-strapped governments throughout the world are slashing subsidies to them, leading to numerous bankruptcies and an inevitable collapse.

For all these reasons, the smart grid dream won’t last much longer. The one smart grid that was completed — a small smart grid in Boulder, Colo., called Smart Grid City — came in at $100-million, three times the original cost estimates, and at a cost of $2,000 per billpayer, it has little value to show for itself. Politicians still push the smart grid, but at some point they will need to face reality — the renewable technologies that the smart grid is intended to support, along with the global warming ideology that underpins them, is all but dead.

The world’s electricity systems will remain predominantly fossil fuelled, and because fossil fuels are both flexible and cheap, they won’t require a smart grid to manage them. The politician-driven smart grid will disappear, and with it the trillions of dollars in needless investment now on the drawing boards.

Financial Post

Lawrence Solomon is executive ­director of Urban Renaissance Institute.

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About Lawrence Solomon

Lawrence Solomon is one of Canada's leading environmentalists. His book, The Conserver Solution (Doubleday) popularized the Conserver Society concept in the late 1970s and became the manual for those interested in incorporating environmental factors into economic life. An advisor to President Jimmy Carter's Task Force on the Global Environment (the Global 2000 Report) in the late 1970's, he has since been at the forefront of movements to reform foreign aid, stop nuclear power expansion and adopt toll roads. Mr. Solomon is a founder and managing director of Energy Probe Research Foundation and the executive director of its Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute divisions. He has been a columnist for The Globe and Mail, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the editor and publisher of the award-winning The Next City magazine, and the author or co-author of seven books, most recently The Deniers, a #1 environmental best-seller in both Canada and the U.S. .
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