We’ve seen our share of anti-smart-meter protests and smart grid opt-out movements in the United States -- but so far, our press has remained neutral on the topic. Not so in the U.K., where the Daily Mail unleashed an article over the weekend on the “sinister” technology of smart appliances that can turn off for a few minutes to prevent blackouts.
The venerable tabloid leaned heavily on the Big Brother theme in its article, getting both former Tory leadership candidate David Davis and Electrolux energy strategy manager Viktor Sundberg to name Orwell’s totalitarian bogeyman in explaining why they’re opposed to the smart grid technologies in question. (It also cited the director of the group Big Brother Watch, for good measure.)
The article actually does a good job of explaining the U.K.'s broader vision of using technologies like smart appliances to balance household demand with grid-scale supply. It comes complete with a graphic showing how microchips in fridges and washer/dryers could smooth spikes in grid demand, as happened during the recent royal wedding, or cover sags in the intermittent and growing share of the country’s power that comes from wind turbines.
It also accurately notes that smart appliances will cost more -- about £40 ($62) more per appliance on average, according to the Daily Mail. That’s actually a bit lower than the premium we’re seeing on today’s earliest smart appliances being sold on a commercial basis from Whirlpool, or being tested by a host of other white goods makers, though those costs are expected to fall with broader adoption.
At the same time, the Daily Mail seems to ignore two key factors in painting the country’s smart grid proposals as the energy industry’s way to gain control over everyone’s kitchens and milk them for cash. First of all, utilities already have a nefarious, oppressive way to control their customers’ power use. It’s called a blackout, and it’s exactly what smart grid technologies like these are meant to prevent.
Specifically, the smart appliance control proposals laid out in the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity's (ENTSO-E) report are designed to check grid frequency at sub-second intervals, and kick in when frequencies vary too far out of bounds, at levels “that would risk blackouts,” the article stated. Given the choice between having your fridge or oven shut off for a few minutes, or losing power entirely, it’s likely consumers would choose the former.
In any case, today’s smart appliances are mainly designed to do much simpler things, like give their owners remote control and energy price data, so they can do their washing using cheap nighttime power, or avoid it altogether when grid demand is rising. Real-time interconnectivity between household appliances and grid frequency regulation, while proven by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in its GridWise demonstration project, is still farther out in the future for appliance makers.
That brings up the second flaw in the story’s premise, which is the idea that these smart appliances are being put in people’s homes and connected to utility control without their knowledge or consent. At least in the U.K., that’s not the case. In fact, the country’s highly deregulated and competitive retail energy markets require the first wave of smart meters to be deployed on a customer-by-customer basis, complete with house calls to replace the meters that usually sit indoors (as opposed to North America’s outdoor meters) and a sales pitch to get the customer to sign up.
Of course, the U.K. wants every electricity and gas meter in the country, about 51 million in total, to be enabled with two-way connectivity by 2020. That presumes that people won’t have a choice about whether or not they’ll stick with their old meters. It’s unclear as yet whether U.K. utility customers, egged on by public attacks such as these, might put up the same kind of resistance that’s forced some U.S. utilities to offer customers an “opt-out” option to keep their old electromechanical meters.
In the meantime, technology standards development for the next wave of “smart” appliances is very much a long-range effort, involving both regulators interested in CO2 reduction and efficiency metrics and industry representatives focused on price and marketing imperatives. The fact that the Daily Mail was able to get an Electrolux executive to bad-mouth smart appliances indicates that perhaps in Europe, industry and regulators don’t see eye to eye on how much future connectivity they should be required to provide in their appliances, and at what cost.