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Google's 'Smart Grid' idea? Get the govt to pay for it

Mr Schmidt goes to Washington

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

Advertising colossus Google has announced a partnership with engineering titan GE, aimed at introducing "a combination of technologies that could be known as the 'smart grid'."

Google doesn't explain in hard and fast terms just what it thinks would make a grid smart. However, Google spokesman Michael Terrill, writing at the official blog of google.org, the ad firm's philanthropic arm, does say that present-day tech offers a "grid of only average intelligence". Terrill is an expert on power transmission engineering: he holds qualifications in law, environmental management and "a BS in Natural Resources".

Seeking to enlighten people on what Google and GE mean by a smart grid, Terrill then links to a Wikipedia article - suggesting, astoundingly, that the two monolithic corporations intend to allow their efforts to be directed by the wiki-fiddler community. (For their part, the wikipediaphiles seem a little cheesed off: Their smart grid page, as of now, bears a quality warning stating that "this article is written like an advertisement".)

Terrill then goes on to explain (pdf) that in fact the main element of Google's smart grid push is to consist of a sound business enterprise - lobbying in Washington. The offered FAQ is quite illuminating:

Q: Why have you chosen to focus on advancing policy?

A: Policy is a major impediment to building a 21st century electricity system. The current regulatory and economic model is failing to drive the innovation and investment we need in today’s electric grid. We will work to overcome regulatory and institutional barriers, and advocate for appropriate incentives.

It seems that Q - or anyway the Google PR who writes his lines - is a bit of an illiterate, but gamely he presses on.

Q: What policy changes are you advocating for [sic]?

A: Initially, we will work to ensure that significant new transmission capacity gets built to bring electricity from renewable sources to consumers and to build a smart electricity grid that will empower utilities and consumers to manage energy more efficiently and save money.

That would seem to mean taxpayers coughing up to put in grid access for renewables plants. Wind, solar, geothermal or water energy is often only worth generating in remote areas which don't have any big power lines to carry the juice to the consumers. But the added cost of building the lines is frequently such that the project couldn't pay for itself, even given existing renewables incentives. Hence the push for government money.

As for empowering utilities and consumers to manage electricity more efficiently and save money, this is about letting consumers get in on the spot electricity market. As everyone knows, the spot price of electricity rises at times of high demand like early evening, and falls at night-time. In places where there's a lot of wind or solar energy, the price is also strongly affected by uncontrolled variations in supply. When the wind starts blowing in Denmark, spot prices can drop almost to zero - the turbine farms have no option to sell their energy at a different time when it might make them more money, the way non-renewables plants can.

Google, like many renewables fanciers, feels that this could be dealt with by giving people reasons to move their demand about to match supplies - so encouraging renewables takeup. This might be achievable if there were lots of electric cars or plug-in hybrids, for instance. Owners of such cars, leaving them plugged in for charging, might set up a program which would lead the cars to draw juice mostly when it was cheap - in the middle of the night, or if a lot of solar or wind power suddenly appeared on the market.

On a smaller scale, fridges might be programmed to run their pumps mainly when the 'leccy was cheap; people deciding to make a cup of tea during a primetime TV advert break might notice a spike on their kitchen electricity-price display, and wait five minutes until everyone else had gone back to watch the programme. (Or simply timeshift the programme of course - but you get the idea).

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