Power play over smart electricity grid

Critics question who will benefit from new technology investment

A group of electricity companies, likely to include major generators, retailers and meter manufacturers, will hold a meeting in the next two weeks to discuss cooperation on appropriate “smart grid” standards.

Generation and distribution networks need to work together to increase the efficiency and the flow of information while not compromising the security of the network, competition or the right of electricity users to move between suppliers.

Parts of the electricity industry have not been satisfactorily collaborating to date on smart grid solutions for electricity supply. This was widely acknowledged by delegates to a conference on smart grids held in Wellington last week. But it now appears the “cross-sectoral conversation” that conference chairman and well-known telecommunications analyst Paul Budde has repeatedly championed is about to begin.

See also: Electricity law could blunt smart meter benefits
Electricity Commission chairman David Caygill told the conference the convenient phrase “smart grid” covers a multitude of technology-aided measures for increasing efficiency for the benefit of the industry, the economy, the environment and the electricity user. Yet, it is more than that, he says. “It’s a way of thinking about the grid that involves the adoption and integration of multiple technologies.”

Component issues that emerged during the conference include efficient generation and routing of power, tracing and remedying of faults and inefficiencies on the network, scheduling of equipment replacement, accommodation of newer means of generation such as wind and solar power that frequently involve distributed installations run by small groups and individuals and — the aspect that gets most public attention — “smart metering” to help companies and households use power cost-effectively and minimise their bills.

Consulting engineer Bryan Leyland told the conference the smart grid’s primary objective should be cost-efficient operation, with a fair share of the cost-reduction going to the user and, “not a way for generating and retailing companies to make piles of money”.

Much discussion centred on who would be advantaged by smart grid technology. Energy analyst and consumer champion Molly Melhuish tried without success — at least on the day of the conference — to secure a seat at the table of the planned industry forum.

This concern over who benefits from smart metering was not confined to Leyland and Melhuish. Several delegates suggested that the benefits from smart metering in particular are unlikely to be equitably shared without regulation or other pressure.

Caygill, pronouncing himself a “right-wing socialist”, is opposed to regulation. He says customer needs should be met through market forces.

He compared the emerging smart-grid standards debate to the 1980s debate on computers for schools when he was a government minister. “It was suggested then that we adopt one standard computer in all schools, but we [the government ] decided not to do that.”

He also compared the inconsistent state of standards in electricity network management with the internet, where consistent and open standards rule. The electricity industry should aspire to that condition, he says.

In a recent blog post, Budde wrote that government leadership is needed for smart grids to be developed in New Zealand.

“The industry can play a key role in this process by creating a broad alliance which can assist the government to develop policies that will enable it to commence such projects. As in the case of Australia, the USA and Europe, large scale demonstration projects are a good way to start,” he said.

Budde argued that as New Zealand is also planning to build a national fibre broadband network, it makes sense to investigate synergies in combining resources in both developments. “This needs to be done as soon as possible in the early stages to avoid operating in the silo structure,” he wrote.

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Tags electricitysmart gridsmart metersNetworking & Telecomms ID

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