Smart grid and economic development?

The fundamental selling point is overlooked

Phil Carson | Jan 06, 2013


As is often the case, a factoid floated by and sparked a thought. 

Last week, IMS Research reported that less than 20 percent of the 1.4 billion electricity meters in the world could communicate; just a subset are the two-way interval meters on residential homes that have gained notoriety in the United States. 

The report suggested that the advanced meter markets for the U.S. and Europe are "well understood"; that is, in my view, well-quantified and cresting. Meter shipments on the rise are heading towards China, India and Brazil. Of those markets, only China appears to be hot for advanced meters, according to IMS Research. 

But, interestingly, those "advanced" meters are not two-way communicating meters. They are one-way, from the premise to the utility. 

"The adoption of these simpler communicating meters reflects the difference in drivers in China when compared to Western Europe and North America," according to IMS Research. "Rather than focusing on next-generation functionality such as voltage optimization or demand response, utilities here are more concerned with energy theft through meter tampering or bribes to readers. Brazil, India, and many other developing countries face similar challenges and may also see the need for simpler one-way style communicating meters to be installed in order to curtail non-technical losses."

"Non-technical losses," of course, are theft. 

Consider the gaping divide that yawns between the U.S. and Europe on the one hand, and markets and economies in China, India and Brazil that are oft-cited as "hot" and potential economic rivals to the U.S. 

Here, we're stumbling through the first throes of grid modernization and many murmur that the metering frenzy may not pan out as envisioned. A round of meter swap-outs due to a simple lack of functionality in some "smart meters" may be in the works. I hear that a number of brands of smart meters cannot split the data output to facilitate a simple integration of distribution automation technologies. We know that data privacy has largely gone unaddressed, an issue that I foresee overtaking the less legitimate brouhaha over RF emissions and human health. 

But we're at least envisioning the evolution of systems and, should regulators, utilities, consumer advocates and other stakeholders ever get off their #$%&*s, we might use advanced metering to implement price signals, demand response and other mutually cooperative means of balancing supply and demand. And, yes, smart meters can help detect and deter electricity theft. 

But in China and India, that's one of the main drivers—just preventing theft. 

I promised myself I'd make this post a short one, so I'll just leave you with a couple thoughts and a link to an interview I did with Massoud Amin, an IEEE senior member and professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Minnesota, where he also serves as director of the Technological Leadership Institute. We did a Q&A last month, titled, "Rebounding from Sandy, for Economic Development." 

Amin has the facts and figures, read that post if you haven't. But the basic point is that the U.S. (that's you and me) has under-invested in critical infrastructure now for decades. We're living off investments made more than a half-century ago and, in some cases, much longer. The electric grid, the water distribution system, transportation—you name it, it's crumbling. 

If we don't ante up to rebuild, we'll have relinquished our future. The gap between us and China illustrated by the drivers for advanced metering will turn into tire tracks across our backs as we lose our future. Here's the rub: the anti-tax fervor and the anti-government rhetoric now rampant in this country has led to a level of stagnation that threatens to eclipse our aspirations. We rule the world militarily, not through influence or persuasion. But we're roaming Mars in a mobile laboratory. 

Rooting out waste and fraud in government is one thing. Pronouncing our national government incapable of anything and making that a self-fulfilling prophecy, while every other nation on earth uses public-private partnerships to win the global competition, is pure stupidity, if not treasonous.

We can do better. And we'd better snap out of it quick.

Okay, folks, I couldn't do short today. But at least I'm leveling with you.

Phil Carson 
Intelligent Utility Daily

Related Topics


Don Quixote would love this


I value your contributions and you've obviously worked in technology. But unless your intent is to be pejorative, the term "windmill" is egregiously inaccurate. 

Windmills pump water and grind grain. 

Wind turbines create electricity from wind. 

If you'd like to make a point about wind turbines, please do, even if it's pejorative. But, let's identify the correct technology. 

Regards, Phil Carson 

The Chicken Or The Egg?

The real impact of the smart grid is still very much in its infancy.  I’m very much in agreement with professor, Massoud Amin and the article of "Rebounding from Sandy, for Economic Development."  The smart meters are the most visible to the public and their true potential has not yet begun to be tapped.  The information they can provide about the grid and its operational state at any given time is very complex and not understood by most.  With the brain drain flowing out of the utilities it will take even longer for that knowledge and use to be rediscovered.


Most of the grid’s operational workings are transparent and goes unnoticed by the average user.  That includes both residential and industrial user.  Over the past 50 plus years, the grid has existed as a key foundational element of our society.  It has been an economic enabler that has produced great benefits for our economy. 


We are now facing worldwide resource shortages and the best economies will be driven by those who can use their resources more efficiently.  That means using those resources wisely by using conservation, understanding usage, and minimizing cost all rolled into one word “Efficient”.  This will hold true for the industrial user as well as the residential user. 


Industry can produce products but if that product is of no value to the consumer then they are out of business.  If the consumer cannot afford the products industry produces, then you’re out of business.  The answer of which comes first the chicken or the egg has been set.  The smart meter is out first and now our efforts should be focusing on do you make scrambled eggs or chicken soup.   Either will feed the economy and hopefully make it stronger. 


Critical to all of this is “Good Chefs” who are informed enough to cook with either chickens or eggs.   


Richard G. Pate

Pate & Associates, Principle




It's all about doing the work

Back in the 1980s there were tax benefits for putting up windmills. I lived in Southern California at the time and I remember all the exotic windmills put up along I-10 near Palm Springs. The designs were hasty and inefficient and couldn't make money, and last time I looked most of them were rusting abandoned hulks. Today they've been replaced by the much larger more efficient windmills we're all familiar with. This design took many years of government-funded basic R&D. So it's not obvious that government involvement is always the "answer". It can be, but does that mean it's required? And just what is the best way for government to get involved?

Early in my career I worked on the SCSI protocol, which is a way of connecting computers to storage devices. It was entirely a private industry effort of dozens of competing companies. The first effort in the '80s worked, but was not very expandable. The industry redesigned it from the ground up, and now it's a whole set of complex protocols that's very important to cloud computing and just about anything done with computers today, all without any involvement by the government at all. So it's not clear to me that something as complex as planning smart grid protocols requires government involvement.

My point here is that it really doesn't matter where the money comes from or even where the "vision" comes from. Designing a whole new infrastructure is an iterative process. It takes scientists and engineers who are willing to roll up their sleeves and build things, put in years, and make mistakes. Nobody at the start has the wisdom to know the final design. It has nothing to do with government or private industry direction, it's more about just putting in the work and letting the results guide you.

So today's smart grid designs aren't turning out to be the best. But that's just how science and technology work. By itself it's not evidence that we have to have the government get more involved.

         Milton Scritsmier

         Boulder, CO


Taxpayers vs. Ratepayers

The anti-government folks are a vocal minority in the country. Most people understand that infrastructure investments from roads to waterworks to the electric grid involve a combination of private and public monies. However, in cases where user fees can be charged instead of dinging the taxpayers, that should be done.  So ratepayers, not taxpayers, should pay for electric system upgrades.


I'm afraid even within the realm of the power grid that it's a bit more complicated.  Ratepayer funding works at the distribution level but transmission is another matter.  One of the major issues in building a new line is that it will benefit people other than those who are affected by its construction.

Also, some of our largest power assets were built with Federal taxpayer money.  I'm thinking about dams here, not to mention the likes of BPA, TVA and SRP--all Federal agencies.  These were all WPA-era projects.  I wonder if anything of that scale would even be contemplated today.