Super-sizing energy

Let’s sit down and bake a cake. The family’s coming over this weekend, promises have been made and there’s no chance this angel food cake is coming out as anything less than perfect. The research is done and the time to prep has come. Rachael  Ray’s recipe is sitting on the counter as the ingredients are gathered. Flour, sugar, salt, tartar, vanilla extract. It’s all there. Except for the eggs.

How the hell were the eggs forgotten?!

No big deal, just run on down to that small mom and pop shop on the corner and grab what’s needed, right? No chance. Doesn’t exist.

The only shot as of this is that Goliath up the road, Costco. If eggs are needed for this cake, a little more than two will need to be purchased

Okay. Not true. A LOT more than two.

See, the bakery down the street is having its annual cupcake sale and ordered a whole truck load of those little white devils. It’s what Costco does best, bulk, and the consumer now has to match this quantitative bump. Regardless of how many of those eggs end up in the angel food, the baker is footing the bill for all of them.

This is how the current energy system works, and it’s time for a change. The calls have been met. Progress is finally underway. The outdated, near barbaric electric systems of the past will meet their end. Society is on the eve of a technological revolution.

Smart grid technology is coming and it will be a radical adjustment from the electric grids of old. The smart grid will make any electric consumer a potential producer; it will provide electricity accordingly, based on peak hours of consumption, to save everyone their hard earned cash. It’s a change that is much needed, both financially and environmentally.

The smart grid acts like a boutique. Where the baking of a cake would have required the purchase of an entire ‘Costco-sized’ 24 pack of eggs before, the smart grid introduces the possibility of picking and choosing how many eggs needed and what kind are best suited to a person’s  individual needs. That angel food only needs two eggs? That’s all that is bought. If it seems one egg would be better than both, sell the other one back at full price (or more, depending on the demand at the time.)

Replace eggs with electricity, and the result is the future of energy systems.

In a world dominated by burning outdated fossil fuels, the energy field has concentrated on not only renewable sources of energy, but a future in which every business and household on a grid can not only consume electricity, but produce it as well.

That future has been pegged on the intricate idea of a smart grid. A modern electricity system, the smart grid looks to take the existing grid and make it ‘smart’ or, as Miles Keogh of The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) puts it, “applying seamless communications systems that can gather and store data and convert the data to intelligence, communicate intelligence omni-directionally among components in the ‘smart’ electricity system and allow automated control that is responsive to that intelligence.”

In layman’s terms, it means the collected efforts of energy, environmental and political factions have lead to the hope that the energy system will not only distribute renewable electricity, but also act as an intelligent, two-way system that can both gather and dish out energy to and from the common consumer. The idea of this electrical grid being ‘smart’ comes from the grid’s ability to track the flow of energy and distribute it evenly at the peak hours of consumption in line with the preferences of not only power plants, but individual consumers as well.

So, while baking that cake, perfect amount of store-bought eggs in hand, a man a few doors down may instead set up a personal chicken coop in the backyard he prefers to either the boutique or even Costco.

It’s nothing too busy, just enough for the man’s personal needs. Though someday those little cluckers are pushing out more eggs than a person can scramble.

In the world of the smart grid, the door will be open for that man to sell as many of those eggs to whomever, however it is deemed fit (again, eggs = electricity).

The eggs are free to move to whoever, however, whenever. The bakery gets a truckload just in time for the annual sale, and the baker is sitting happy at home eating angel food cake made from a perfect one and a half eggs. No extra hit to the wallet.

It’s a program designed to cut costs for both producers and consumers, and helps to implement the environmentally sound, sustainable energy resources being introduced today. Yet,  while this seems like an obvious solution to an outdated system, the road to the smart grid hasn’t always been a smooth one. With huge economic impacts surrounding the transition, the timeline for its implementation isn’t crystal clear yet.

“Wide spread adoption? It’s going to take time,” professor Kerry Johnston, program coordinator of Humber College’s sustainable energy and building tech  program tells Scribe. “I would hope it would be 10 years but realistically it’s probably more like 20 years.”

While widespread consumer adoption may take time, smart grid technology development is in full swing and low volume consumer use is under way.

“It started already,” says  Hossam Gaber, one of Canada’s leading smart grid researchers whose lab is situated at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. “It’s growing dramatically, but as other technologies, it will take some time for actual implementation.”

“The smart grid allows for multiple points of access to the electricity grid,” says Johnston. “A smart grid will allow thousands of participants to access the system easily. Right now there are limitations with our existing electricity transmission and distribution system, it was built without any contemplation of multiple access points. It was one central generator sending electricity basically one way to the consumer, and we’re thinking more now about multiple [paths of electricity]. They’ve come up with the term ‘prosumer”, so you remain connected to the grid, and if you have some solar generated power that’s more than you need, you’re a producer, and when you have less than you need, you’re a consumer.”

Gaber speculates that although these technologies will be beneficial to most, if not all parties in the long run, the big ticket issue with smart grids continues to be the financing.

In order to fully enable, or at least practically enable these technologies, a lot of funding is required because we are talking about changes in infrastructures, business models, technologies and user systems, says Gaber. “The funding is going have to be huge because we have to do a lot of changes to appliances, buildings, vehicles, sub stations, markets and the transmission distribution.”

This is where things get tricky. It can be agreed upon by all parties – the bakery, Costco and the average consumer, that this new, efficient system is beneficial for all, but the price just isn’t quite right.

“From the [the consumer’s] angle, I can see cost benefits and I can see profit. There are a lot of new opportunities for companies like technology providers, small business owners and other industrial users,” says Gaber. “If I had a smart meter in my home, I would be able to reduce my bill by X amount or a certain percentage and if I need, I can get ROI (return on investment) if I spend more money to help implement smart grid technologies.

Someone needs to go first. That’s a given. Whether it’s the bakery, Costco or the baker and that angel food cake that has been so desperately trying to get finished through all of this, a little bit of dough is going to have to be forked up. The end result is crystal clear, though getting there may a bit of a tussle.

If the energy future is going to be that of clean, renewable and smart energy production, then there is going to be a widespread shift that will be felt hard. This shift is one that future generations will look back at as revolutionary progress towards both environmentally and economically sound energy systems.

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