This article is from the In-Depth Report 10 Years after North America's Largest Blackout
60-Second Earth

What If the Smart Grid Isn't So Smart?

New analyses show that equipping consumers with real-time information about electricity prices could crash the grid. David Biello reports

The idea is simple: supply people with smart meters that give real-time information on electricity use and price. Armed with the new information, consumers might opt to plug in their laptop in the middle of the night instead of, say, the middle of the day. As a bonus, the system would lead to more use of renewable energy sources like the wind and sun.

But there's a hitch. If everybody aims to use cheap electricity, the slow time in the middle of the night becomes the high demand time. In the worst case, everybody's laptops start recharging, refrigerator compressors kick on, dishwashers start up and so on, at the exact same moment. At least so say M.I.T. researchers in a paper presented at a recent meeting of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Instead of charging on the cheap, you get a huge spike in demand and, potentially, a blackout. That's because electricity must be produced at the same second it is consumed and utilities must precisely match supply and demand.

One solution would be to give consumers imperfect or non-instantaneous price information, though that kind of defeats the original purpose. But it does keep the smart grid from outsmarting itself

—David Biello

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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