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Is a digital grid better?

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Henry Craver's picture
Small Business Owner Self-employed

As a small business owner, I'm always trying to find ways to cut costs and boost the dependability of my services. To that end, I've become increasingly invested in learning about energy saving...

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  • Jul 20, 2021 9:43 pm GMT
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For well over a decade now, the dominant narrative has stressed the necessity to digitize our power grid. A smarter grid will facilitate the adoption of a diverse, renewable-heavy, energy portfolio that in turn will mitigate global warming. Gadgets like smart meters and smart thermostats will boost energy efficiency, saving customers money, making peak demand less demanding, and, again, cutting emissions. 

Of course, even the most sanguine commentators have recognized the security risks associated with a digital grid. The more advanced the system, the larger the attack area is—it’s just common sense. However, with improved security systems in place to mitigate the risks, the benefits of a smarter grid would outway the negatives.

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But has it really played out that way?

Deep into the digital revolution, we’ve yet to see the sort of promises that the high-tech advocates promised. Take smart meters, for example. A 2020 report by Keele University in England, found that the nation’s Smart Meter Rollout Programme had delivered underwhelming energy savings—possibly as low as 2%. Part of the problem with smart meters and other residential devices that give customers the ability to curb their energy use is that the customers just don’t care that much. The highly prolific Energy Central member Bob Meinetz put it in a response to one of my posts:

“Henry, in truth I really don't think electricity customers care how their electricity is made, or whether their home is as efficient as it could be.

As long as the coffeemaker works in the morning and the lights turn on/off, most people have more important things to think about.”

Beyond just the efficacy of any specific digital tool, the bigger promise of a smart grid has been the renewable potential it would untap. Yet renewables themselves haven’t led to net carbon reductions the way most, including myself, hoped. Germany, for example, has been one of the most aggressive adopters of renewables since the beginning of last decade. Despite their impressive renewable portfolio, however, Deutschland has basically stagnated on carbon cutting and looks poised to miss its Paris goals. The USA, on the other hand, has cut its emissions more than any other country in the past twenty years thanks to natural gas. 

Meanwhile, as the benefits of grid digitization have failed to live up to expectations, the associated security risks have been very real. Last year, the SolarWinds attack breached around a quarter of North American utilities, according to NERC. The Department of Energy was among the long list of victims. Hackers haven’t let up since: the Colonial Pipelone, JBS meat processing, and the water treatment facility in Oldsmar, Florida.  

Has the time come to question our enthusiasm for a digital power infrastructure? The renewables that necessitated a hightech grid have not cut carbon emissions as we’d hoped—save for in a couple geographically special countries like Norway and New Zealand. And yet the security compromises inherent to the internet of things seem poised to bug us more and more.


 

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