I talked this week with Adrian Tuck, CEO of Tendril, about interesting ways the U.S. power delivery grid could be modernized. Tendril, it needs to be said, could gain a lot from the nationwide adoption of smart grid technologies, since it makes software and designs hardware that collects electricity use data from appliances and then processes that data for utility companies and consumers.
The big idea that Tuck and I discussed is a concept that's only now boring its way through the thick bureaucracies of the utility companies: what if, instead of power companies charging for electricity at the power meter, which is the point of where it leaves their power lines, they instead were able to charge individual appliances and other devices for the power they used, regardless of where they used it?
What's the difference? It's this: suppose I have a Tesla Roadster, and I drive 240 miles (the Tesla's range) from my house to yours, to see you. I need to recharge my car to get back home. If I plug it in at your place, that will cost you about $4, Tesla says. A small price to pay for the pleasure of my company, but nonetheless isn't it unfair for you to pay for my car's fuel? And if you're talking about parking lots full of cars at businesses, this cost could add up. If cars and power companies could communicate directly, that charge could go to the cars' owners, not the owner of the building where they plug in.
Other devices that use a lot of energy--refrigerators, washing machines, air conditioners--could give their owners some control over whose energy they use and when they use it. Tuck says that the idea of energy that's billed to devices instead of homes is "the equivalent of number portability" for electricity. It would allow manufacturers to build devices that let their owners choose which electricity producer they want to use to power their devices. Want cheap but polluting coal power right now? Go ahead and dial that in. Want green wind power instead (and the carbon credits with it)? Set your washer to run only when there's "wind on the grid," and let the provider who generates that power send you a bill for the electricity you use.
Tuck even talked about the idea of appliances with pre-paid kilowatt-hours. You could go to Home Depot, buy a window-mount air conditioner with a summer's worth of cooling already built in to it. Such a device would certainly make consumers more aware of the power they're using. (It's also a great gift idea, if you ask me.)
Tilting at windmills
This vision is, for the most part, a fantasy right now. Except in Texas, power generation, delivery, and sales are not deregulated enough to allow such services, much less encourage utility companies to push for this kind of a re-think of their businesses.
But there's real consumer value in putting a little electricity meter in every appliance or electric car. Tuck says that consumers who get better information on their energy consumption than the current monthly bills use less power--up to 15 percent less, depending on the quality and timeliness of the data.
Appliances with energy-reporting chips will start coming out in 2011, he says. They'll just offer reporting capabilities to the utility and the consumer; the idea of allowing users to select different energy supplies for individual appliances is still a long way off.
But the idea of charging devices' registered owners for the services they use is powerful and interesting. This is how cellular phones work. You can get phones where you pay for exactly what you use, no more and no less, because the phones and their service providers know what services you're using. Drive that kind of granular service data into the appliances that consume the majority or our electricity and there's no telling what kind of innovation we'd get--and with it, presumably, smarter use of the limited energy resources we have.