Smarter paths to power


MARIJUANA “GROW-OPS” run by organised crime gangs are costing BC Hydro, British Columbia’s equivalent of the ESB, more than €77 million a year in lost revenue due to their bypassing of meters to steal electricity.

But Gary Murphy, chief project officer of the Canadian provincial utility’s smart grid programme, believes the syndicates involved in these illegal operations will ultimately be outwitted by the work he’s doing to transform how power is delivered to people’s homes.

“These guys have been buying up houses, gutting them and turning the properties into marijuana factories,” he told The Irish Times. “And they’re able to get three crops a year under high-pressure lights, so they’d make the price of the house back in just a few years.”

Money and theft of electricity are not the only big issues here: serious fires have been sparked by the heat generated by lighting rigs.

“Smart metering will enable these ‘grow-ops’ to be located,” Murphy told the Globe conference in Vancouver last week. “If we do this right, it will increase the security of our infrastructure as well as giving safety benefits, because it’s going to prevent numerous fires taking place.”

So far, BC Hydro has installed smart meters for more than half of its 1.8 million customers throughout a province well over 10 times the size of Ireland. “It’s a huge area to cover. Our distribution and transmission network would wrap around the globe nearly twice.” Smart meters will enable the utility to connect or disconnect any premises remotely, collect and provide information at hourly intervals and enable customers to interact with their electricity supplier in a way that goes beyond being merely the recipients of a two-monthly bill.

In a nutshell, an “intelligent grid” will allow power devices to communicate through a central system, making smart decisions to optimise electricity distribution and transmission. It will help to balance supply with demand, reducing the potential for blackouts.

It will also be able to integrate current energy sources such as hydro or natural gas with alternative energy sources such as solar, wind and biomass, switching between them all to optimise the supply of electricity, and even allow consumers to feed electricity into the grid.

“It’s been interesting to implement this project in the court of public opinion,” Murphy said. “One well-organised activist group claims it’s a conspiracy and ‘they want to know when you’re having sex’, but it changes nothing on data protection or freedom of information.”

In the US, privacy is a huge issue, said Annabelle Lee of the Electric Power Research Institute. “It’s meant that PGE had to include an ‘opt-out’ option for customers who don’t want these intelligent devices. It does raise security issues, as we’re moving from the existing infrastructure with its one-way flow of electricity and one-way flow of information to the two-way flow of a smart grid”. She feels larger utilities have not paid enough attention to the security/privacy issue, because their No 1 priority is to ensure the availability of electricity “24/7/365”, and then to protect their information and communications technology systems from attacks.

She said Hurricane Katrina had underlined the vulnerability of power generation and distribution networks, and that “failure scenarios” need to be studied.

One of the key elements of smart grid technology is that it will enable “precursors” of power failures to be identified in advance, thus helping to avoid actual outages, says Gary Murphy. “It will also be the foundation and footprint for future innovations in technology.”

Supplying and installing smart meters is costing BC Hydro 930 million Canadian dollars, but it estimates there will be a payback of 521 million dollars in lower electricity bills, as customers will be able to use clever web-based tools to cut their overall consumption.

Eric Deschenes, Canadian vice-president of Schneider Electric – a global leader in energy management – believes smart grid technology will allow households and businesses reduce consumption by at least 30 per cent.

With global electricity demand likely to double by 2050, energy conservation would play an increasingly important role in cutting carbon emissions. But Deschenes cautioned that the “energy dilemma is here to stay” because of the demands we make on supplies.

He noted a shocking statistic: “An iPhone consumes 2,400 watts of electricity per day, not just in running the device itself, but getting the network to support it.” That adds up to a lot of power. Jim Burpee, president of the Canadian Electricity Association, warned the price of power “has got to go up” to pay for smart grid technology, and called on politicians to be more forthright in admitting there will be a “price impact” for the new regime.

Over to you, Minister for Communications and Energy Pat Rabbitte . . .