As we move towards smart electricity grids, there is a lot of focus on the technical challenges we face. These include the equipment, sensors, instrumentation and controls to manage the physical aspects of the smart grid, as well as the OT and IT that will be needed to control it. These changes represent a major shift in how networks are controlled, right down even to phase.
There are however many societal issues that will also need to be addressed. At present many, including some regulators, are assuming that the necessary changes of use, such as time off-sets, can be achieved through appropriate pricing structures. However in other sectors, such as water, where metering has been introduced to reduce consumption, in some more affluent areas consumption has actually risen. When questioned the customers responded that they could afford whatever water they wanted. This sort of response could prevent a smart grid solution from working if driven totally by economic measures.
Consider a street where many customers have Electric Vehicles (EV). This street can sustain, say, 10 cars on a fast charge at any time: more would lead to thermal issues. The theory is that by making the fast charge price much higher than the trickle charge, the number of customers requesting fast charge would naturally be limited. However it is more than possible that far more than 10 customers want to quickly recharge their EV, so that the EV is available for full use as soon as possible, and are willing to pay the premium price for this benefit. Moreover, the most likely time for this to occur would be early evening, when many have just arrived home from work: this is already a peak period for electricity use. The network system operator would have no choice but to curtail some of the fast charge requests. However, how is this managed? Is it always on a ‘first come, first served’ basis? If so, those who have the shortest commutes, and hence potentially have less need for the fast charge, would always be the people who would get this facility. Such a situation would give rise to discontentment in those who could not get the fast charge facility, and likely to cause neighbourhood disputes.
The above situation is just one of the possible societal impacts that could occur should the move to smart grid just be kept at the technical and economic level. There are many others: for example where peer to peer trading, or vehicle to grid supply, has to be curtailed due to network constraints. I believe that the industry, governments and regulators need to start a debate in society where such matters can be considered widely. The recent grid outages in the UK, and subsequent press coverage, shows that even the mainstream media has very little understanding of how electricity networks operate. Without wider understanding, and appropriate debate about the choices that will need to be made, the industry will struggle to deliver the expected benefits from smart girds, and moreover could receive a lot of criticism.
Given the international push to greener technology, such as EVs, this societal debate needs to start now.