Energy Efficiency Markets LLC

Smart grid and stupid buildings: Can this marriage survive?

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Smart grid is still in its honeymoon phase. Hardly a day goes by without fanfare in the news about how it will reform building energy use. Maybe so. But for the marriage of smart grid and US buildings to work, someone's got to change. Is the stupid building up to the task?

“Wiring the Smart Grid for Energy Efficiency,' a white paper by Oregon-based Portland Energy Conservation Inc (PECI), brings us down to earth by pointing out how much transformation is required.

First, the bill. Smart meters alone will cost about $35 billion to install in 140 million U.S. homes and small businesses. Estimates are that nationwide, we'll need to spend $400 billion to $900 billion to create a truly smart grid. Sure, forecasts Indicate smart grid will more than pay for itself. But where does the upfront capital come from?

Second, many of our buildings wouldn't know what to do with a smart meter. Their control systems are not up to the task. This could spell trouble if the systems are not improved before smart devices are installed. 'Imagine if a building was called upon to reduce load, and while all the controls were in place to raise the temperature setpoint throughout the building to 76°F, this action results in four offices overheating to 83°F due to the need for air distribution system maintenance and sensor calibration,' the PECI paper says.

Third, how do we achieve 'true interoperability of communications,' or rather, get the smart grid and stupid building to talk? This will require development of a common language, still in the works. 'In residential applications, grid-aware appliances will become widespread only if they are easy to install. For example, a washing machine that receives a price signal from the electric grid and correspondingly makes decisions about whether to operate should be able to be installed by a homeowner or by a contractor without expensive set-up costs. This kind of plug-and-play operation requires that the appliance automatically operates with the utility’s communications network as well as any home energy monitoring system.'

Automation will be crucial. Or at the least, data display must be understandable and compelling. The report points out that consumers already suffer from information overload, so are unlikely to take the time to respond to price signals without strong incentive. Worse, consumers might treat energy savings like 'a fad diet rather than a lifestyle change,' making it difficult for our society to achieve lasting energy savings.

We've yet to come up with the 'killer application' to make smart grid a mass-market product, like what email did for the Internet. Further, we're entering this new terrain with a lack of experienced building performance engineers.

The report does not say smart grid won't live up to its promise of achieving dramatic energy savings. Quite the contrary. Smart grid may be one of the most brilliant ideas of our time. But we must proceed soberly.

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