Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Smart grids don't need high speed broadband

In an Address to National Press Club yesterday, Senator Conroy, Minister for Broadband claimed that broadband is a green technology and could drive major reductions in carbon emissions. This is something I teach my Green ICT students at the ACS and ANU, but not for the reasons the Minister gave.

The minister argued that broadband could improve monitoring and management of power distribution, connecting consumers with power generators to make distribution more efficient and reliable. While such "Smart grids" can make power use more efficient with monitoring and automatic adjustment of processes which use power, they do not require broadband. Only a very limited amount of data is needed to do this, what is needed is not broadband but reliable, widespread data access. It is likely that many of the smart grid applicaitons will use low speed wireless and powerline data networks due to their low cpst and reliability.

The misconception which the Minister has is a common one. This is the assumption that to have data access it must be broadband. Most smart grid applications only require a few bits per second at the consumer end of the connection, not megabits per second. This is because it does not take much data to communicate the price of electricity and so when it is a good time to switch and appliance off.

There is potential for reduced power consumption and costs in households as well as business. Major appliances in the home, particularly those currently controlled by "dumb" thermostats can be controlled by smart meters to adjust to energy costs minute by minute, which in turn reflects the sot of production , including the CO2e effects (greenness) of that energy.

There is the possibility of significant carbon emission reductions. However, the data networks used for these smart grids will need to be reliable, as an unreliable power grid would cripple the Australian economy as well as place the lives of millions of people at risk. So far the Government's National Broadband Network proposal has only touched on reliability and this needs to be made a priority of the proposal. The new network needs to be at least as reliable as the telephone network it is replacing and to be able to run for extended periods without the electricity grid.

With a reliable data network, there are opportunities to improve energy efficiency, with remote power management, de-centralised business, transport management, renewable energy, and web conferencing. But these "build it and they will come" approach is unlikely to work. These applications will not just happen because a broadband network is provided, they need to be planned for.
CLIMATE CHANGE

Take climate change.

Australia has set ambitious targets to reduce carbon emissions by 2020 and this will require an economy-wide response.

Some have said why invest in broadband when we need investment in green technologies.

The fact is, broadband is green technology.

In fact, it is an enabler of efficiencies that could drive major reductions in carbon emissions.

In the energy sector, providers plan to use broadband to improve the way they monitor and manage power distribution.

Using broadband to connect power consumers with power generators allows them to harness ways to make distribution more efficient and reliable.

Smart grids connected by broadband raise the potential to not only monitor energy use but to allow remote adjustment of lights or temperature.

For households this means opportunities for reduced power consumption and costs.

Remote control of connected appliances, thermostats and electric meters will help energy companies balance the peaks and troughs of daily usage.

This in turn allows them to sell the recovered power on the market, reducing the need for new power generators.

For the country it means the very real possibility of significant carbon emission reductions.

In Australia and elsewhere, providers are already testing smart grid networks.

Estimates in the US have put the cost savings for consumers between 5 and 25 per cent.

One couple, early adopters of a pilot smart grid in Miami, claim they are saving $100 a month simply by keeping an eye on their digital energy meter.

The information allows them to understand household consumption trends and to adjust their habits accordingly.

The Fibre-to-the-Home Council commissioned PricewaterhouseCoopers to research the potential sustainability benefits of broadband.

Based on a count of 20 million FTTH users in Europe with 10 per cent of the population teleworking three days per week by 2015, it estimates greenhouse-gas emission savings per user of 330kg, equivalent to a car travelling 2,000 kilometres.

Research also shows that improving telecommunications use could result in significant savings for Australia.

In fact, Climate Risk has estimated that local energy and travel savings alone could be worth up to $6.6 billion annually.

It noted a number of major opportunities for communications to improve energy efficiency, including:

  • Remote appliance power management,
  • De-centralised business districts,
  • Real-time freight management,
  • Increased renewable energy, and
  • High Definition video conferencing.

These are exactly the kind of applications that will be enabled via the National Broadband Network.

From: "Address to National Press Club", Senator the Hon Stephen Conroy, Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy , 28 April 2009, Document ID: 110849, Last modified: 28 April 2009, 3:57pm

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