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The Government and the Grid

The Obama administration is spearheading an effort to streamline the nation’s energy grid. This is a much-needed overhaul, especially considering the age of most energy infrastructure. “A Policy Framework for a 21st Century Grid” was announced in June 2011, and concentrates efforts on upgrading efficiency and providing security from potential threats.

Most of the overhaul concentrates on upgrading technology and overlaying a computer and communications system onto the grid, improving reliability, and giving greater access to individual and locality electric usage. This will allow energy providers to more effectively route electricity through the network and monitor for unexpected surges or demand. With a more flexible system, operators can route power away from areas using minimal energy and send it to areas experiencing spikes in usage.

The smart grid plans include using updated meters that provide consumers with a more detailed analysis of their power usage, showing usage for particular times of day so consumers can track how much power is required for different household tasks. Consumers can occasionally lock into an off-peak pricing schedule that lets them perform activities such as laundry and dishwashing at off-peak hours to save money on their electric bills.

The policy documents usage of smart grids and smart meters in various localities around the United States. On a small scale, these projects have helped to conserve power and prevent surges in demand from overloading the system. Attempting this on a national scale is a complex endeavour, but it promises an excellent return on the investment if the smart system will save money for both consumers and power companies.

A key component of this type of detailed analysis is installing smart meters on household appliances. The smart meters are integrated into a system that tracks your appliances and thermostat. In theory, this is a good idea: you can track exactly how much power something is drawing and control your expenses. In practice, this allows the power company to know when you’re using different appliances, and it can potentially tell them what kind of appliances you use as well.

Privacy laws are strongly recommended to prevent utility companies from providing or selling that usage information to insurance companies, appliance manufacturers, or even law enforcement personnel. Otherwise, if you have UV grow lights in your greenhouse, and your power bill is higher than average, you could get a visit from the police…or if your refrigerator starts running inefficiently, you could receive unsolicited mail from an appliance manufacturer trying to gain your business.

While there are drawbacks to having smart meters installed on your appliances, consider the benefits of logging in from your vacation destination to check your house thermostat or energy usage. With this level of control, you can adjust your thermostat online or even turn on some lights — providing they are hooked up to smart meters — to make it look like someone is home. If you install this type of wireless smart system, use appropriate computer and internet security tools to protect your smart network. The administration’s plan also addresses cyber-security issues at the grid level and spells out principles for handling potential hacking threats.

Along with these upgrades, utility companies are planning to run a year-long experiment with the nation’s power grid. Tentatively scheduled to start in July, utility companies will adjust the frequency at which electricity is sent out along power lines. This is part of an effort to adjust for variations in power flow, especially with more alternative energy sources being wired into the grid. The utility companies state that allowing for a bit more variance will help ease out occasional drops or spikes that are routinely seen with the current setup.

This experiment has one potential drawback: electric clocks use the frequency set by power companies to give an accurate time. Any clock plugged into and depending on that frequency will wind up running faster than usual. North American Electric Reliability Corporation oversees the nation’s grid and electricity-generation facilities. Their presentation on the project states that “If the grid averages just over 60 cycles a second, clocks that rely on the grid will gain 14 seconds per day.” However, the effects will vary depending on locality. The East Coast will experience a slightly faster speed than the West Coast, and thus the clocks will be off by different times depending on the region.

There is no official word on when this change will begin, so monitor the clocks on your stove, microwave, and other appliances to ensure they’re telling the correct time. Since computers and many new cellphones go by Greenwich Mean Time and automatically check that on a regular basis to ensure accuracy, this will provide a useful baseline for the clocks in your home.

During this time of record heat sweeping the nation, it’s becoming obvious that something must be done about the aging electrical grid. We are experiencing brownouts and blackouts, and excessive heat warnings and watches stretch from New England into the Plains states, as well as the entire South. Grids are failing, people are becoming violent, and folks are dying. Perhaps instead of waiting for the government and power companies to come up with solutions, it’s time for all of us to begin the change from total dependence on the grid to more self-sufficiency.

After all… when has any government endeavor ever worked out the way it was presented?

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