FCC envisions broadband-based “Smart Grid” to facilitate energy conservation

Can’t make it out to Disneyland for the 2010 version of “Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress”? No problem. Just take a quick gander at Chapter 12 of the National Broadband Plan (NBP). A Jetsons-like future is, apparently, just around the corner for all of us.

The NBP, of course, is touted as promoting a wide range of society-improving interpersonal communication uses – like telemedicine and long-distance education. But the elaborate broadband infrastructure necessary for those communications could also be harnessed with innovative technology to enhance energy efficiency and safe transportation. Hence, the “Smart Grid”.

In the NBP’s vision, a national broadband “Smart Grid” would connect to most energy-consuming devices. It would enable the reduction, or at least evening out, of their consumption, and inform consumers of the extent, and cost, of their energy use (thus, ideally, encouraging them to stop being energy hogs).

Smart homes and buildings are the starting point – buildings equipped with devices that provide their occupants with information about their energy consumption, allowing them to make real-time adjustments in consumption patterns.

Traditionally, consumers have received information about energy consumption only after-the-fact, when they receive their monthly utility bills. The FCC envisions systems that could monitor and report on energy use on a real-time basis, with pricing information included, thereby enabling consumers to avoid or to reduce consumption during peak demand periods. Since a significant portion of energy production plant is needed only during peak hours, less plant would be needed if peaks were leveled out. For example, if the power grid were under strain at a particular time, and you happened to be cooling your home enough to wear a sweater, your TV might flash dollar signs before your eyes to warn you that it is time to let the place warm up a little if you don’t want a rude surprise when your electric bill comes. Or you might receive a warning from your smartphone, leading you to change your thermostat using – yes – your smartphone, even if that thermostat is in your home in Washington and you happen to be surfing in California.

Appliances are now being developed that can connect to a home network and gather and report information about community-wide power demand. Those appliances might discourage operation during peak periods, by sounding a warning or even refusing to function. Appliances with time flexibility might include washers and dryers and charging stations for future electric vehicles, which will tax the power grid significantly if charging is not confined to overnight hours. One manufacturer claims that all of its appliances will connect to the Smart Grid by 2015.

Telecommunications network sharing should be encouraged, the FCC says, to avoid construction and operation of duplicative energy-consuming systems. Sharing between public safety and commercial entities should also be encouraged. The FCC suggests that studies be undertaken of the reliability and resiliency of commercial broadband networks and recommends that the networks be hardened so that they are less likely to fail during a storm or other emergency. Cable TV, for example, is known in many areas as one of the earliest systems to go out during a storm. Obviously, utilities don’t want to rely on systems which fail when most needed. The more reliable commercial networks become, the more likely public safety agencies and utilities will become interested in sharing those networks. The FCC also suggests that privately owned utilities be qualified to share public safety wireless networks. Today, they usually do not qualify because they are not government entities.

Financial incentives are suggested to encourage utilities in turn to provide incentives to their customers to conserve energy. These incentives would be different from today’s incentives, which encourage building facilities and selling more power, especially for utilities which have a guaranteed rate of return on their plant investment.  The FCC suggests that utilities be rewarded for investing in ways to reduce consumption, not just investing in more generating plants.

Standardization is an important element in encouraging both the use and the usefulness of the Smart Grid. The FCC suggests mandatory open and interoperable standards, along with standardized access policies which would accord all customers access to the Smart Grid – and, thus, the ability to acquire and use information to reduce consumption wherever they may be physically located. The FCC suggests that if states do not require utilities to provide consumers with access to energy consumption information within the next 18 months, the federal government should step in with national pre-emptive legislation.

The NBP also encourages more efficient design and operation of telecommunications networks themselves, including deploying virtual servers which allow a single server to perform the function of multiple servers, as well as using energy-efficient components.

Moving to the transportation side, the FCC extols the energy savings which would accrue if everyone had a communications link that knew where traffic were congested and suggested alternate routes in real time. So much for listening to your favorite radio station traffic personality.  And finally, a nod of the head is given to collision avoidance technologies, which require spectrum to operate but do not require a link to the Smart Grid except to report when they have failed and the vehicle has been smashed.

The FCC’s aspirations are ambitious. But few people dispute that the nation consumes more energy than it need consume, and most agree that we would be better off if we were less dependent on foreign oil. Thus, moving in the directions the FCC suggests should result in cleaner air and more economic freedom for the nation. There are obvious “Big Brother” issues with amassing and distributing too much information, but the FCC does recognize privacy concerns and recommends that while consumers should have access to full information about their consumption patterns, they should also be able to control who else has access to their individualized data.

To paraphrase the classic theme song of Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress:

There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow, And tomorrow’s just an NBP away.

[Blogmeister note: This is one in a series of posts describing the range of regulatory and societal areas in which the National Broadband Plan could, and likely will, affect us all. Click here to find other posts in this series.]