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Smart grid and economic development?

As is often the case, a factoid floated by and sparked a thought. 

Last week, IMS Research reported that less than 20 percent of the 1.4 billion electricity meters in the world could communicate; just a subset are the two-way interval meters on residential homes that have gained notoriety in the United States. 

The report suggested that the advanced meter markets for the U.S. and Europe are "well understood"; that is, in my view, well-quantified and cresting. Meter shipments on the rise are heading towards China, India and Brazil. Of those markets, only China appears to be hot for advanced meters, according to IMS Research. 

But, interestingly, those "advanced" meters are not two-way communicating meters. They are one-way, from the premise to the utility. 

"The adoption of these simpler communicating meters reflects the difference in drivers in China when compared to Western Europe and North America," according to IMS Research. "Rather than focusing on next-generation functionality such as voltage optimization or demand response, utilities here are more concerned with energy theft through meter tampering or bribes to readers. Brazil, India, and many other developing countries face similar challenges and may also see the need for simpler one-way style communicating meters to be installed in order to curtail non-technical losses."

"Non-technical losses," of course, are theft. 

Consider the gaping divide that yawns between the U.S. and Europe on the one hand, and markets and economies in China, India and Brazil that are oft-cited as "hot" and potential economic rivals to the U.S. 

Here, we're stumbling through the first throes of grid modernization and many murmur that the metering frenzy may not pan out as envisioned. A round of meter swap-outs due to a simple lack of functionality in some "smart meters" may be in the works. I hear that a number of brands of smart meters cannot split the data output to facilitate a simple integration of distribution automation technologies. We know that data privacy has largely gone unaddressed, an issue that I foresee overtaking the less legitimate brouhaha over RF emissions and human health. 

But we're at least envisioning the evolution of systems and, should regulators, utilities, consumer advocates and other stakeholders ever get off their #$%&*s, we might use advanced metering to implement price signals, demand response and other mutually cooperative means of balancing supply and demand. And, yes, smart meters can help detect and deter electricity theft. 

But in China and India, that's one of the main drivers—just preventing theft. 

I promised myself I'd make this post a short one, so I'll just leave you with a couple thoughts and a link to an interview I did with Massoud Amin, an IEEE senior member and professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Minnesota, where he also serves as director of the Technological Leadership Institute. We did a Q&A last month, titled, "Rebounding from Sandy, for Economic Development." 

Amin has the facts and figures, read that post if you haven't. But the basic point is that the U.S. (that's you and me) has under-invested in critical infrastructure now for decades. We're living off investments made more than a half-century ago and, in some cases, much longer. The electric grid, the water distribution system, transportation—you name it, it's crumbling. 

If we don't ante up to rebuild, we'll have relinquished our future. The gap between us and China illustrated by the drivers for advanced metering will turn into tire tracks across our backs as we lose our future. Here's the rub: the anti-tax fervor and the anti-government rhetoric now rampant in this country has led to a level of stagnation that threatens to eclipse our aspirations. We rule the world militarily, not through influence or persuasion. But we're roaming Mars in a mobile laboratory. 

Rooting out waste and fraud in government is one thing. Pronouncing our national government incapable of anything and making that a self-fulfilling prophecy, while every other nation on earth uses public-private partnerships to win the global competition, is pure stupidity, if not treasonous.

We can do better. And we'd better snap out of it quick.

Okay, folks, I couldn't do short today. But at least I'm leveling with you.

Phil Carson's picture

Thank Phil for the Post!

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