Saturday, September 1, 2012

Smart meters, incentives and a chance to use "extruded" in a post

Here's a product idea for you, an old notion repackaged for a new problem. It's a piece of plastic in the shape of an extruded upside-down T filled with a saline or alcohol solution that freezes exactly at a certain temperature (let's say 20 degrees). During the summer, you put the T into your freezer (I'm assuming the freezer is on the top) and set the thermostat timer (did I mention you need a thermostat timer?) to turn the freezer down to ten degrees (I'm using round numbers here. Actual values would certainly be different) from one a.m. to five a.m. then up to just under twenty degrees from five to ten then up to twenty-five from ten to four then just over twenty from four till one the next morning.

Obviously, I didn't put a lot of research into freezers before coming up with these temperatures, but I think you catch the basic idea: have the freezer work hardest in the middle of the night when electricity is cheap and the house is cool and do as little as possible when the grid is overloaded.

There's nothing original here. Old-fashioned ice-cream makers use the same principle. Nor is there anything unusual; without breaking a mental sweat, you could probably come up with a dozen comparable (or better) ideas for smoothing out the power demand curve.

By making more efficient use of our electrical resources, these ideas would pay for themselves in... well, never. You pay the same for the electricity you consume at two in the morning as you do for what you use just before a brown-out. That's the problem. There are lots of things we could do to smooth out our power demand curve but under the current system (pardon the pun) there's no incentive.

There's a notable precedent we can refer to. The current generation of of automobiles feature an array of innovative energy efficient technologies. The feature that impressed me most as a driver was the continuously variable transmission. An engineer pointed out that many of those energy saving technologies, including the CVT, had actually been around for decades, but had only come into wide use because regulations and/or high prices (think Europe) and consumer demand had forced engineers to find ways to squeeze every possible mile out of a gallon of gas. We can argue about what kind of incentive worked best to spur innovation, but no one can argue that incentives didn't work.

Of course, we do have the technology for variable demand-based pricing, and we have a line of incredibly cheap credit to pay for implementing it. What we don't have is a real interest in solving problems.

And a lack of interest in solutions is a difficult problem to solve.

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