One of the claimed benefits of the national broadband network (NBN) is that it will act as an enabler for ‘smart grids’. ‘Smart grids’ have been described as electricity distribution networks that:
“use sensors, meters, digital controls and analytic tools to automate, monitor and control the two-way flow of energy across operations—from power plant to plug. A power company can optimize grid performance, prevent outages, restore outages faster and allow consumers to manage energy usage right down to the individual networked appliance. Smart grids can also incorporate new sustainable energies such as wind and solar generation, and interact locally with distributed power sources, or plug-in electric vehicles.” (IBM 30/11/2009)
In his NBN advocacy, Senator Conroy has claimed smart grids can make a significant contribution to helping Australia reduce carbon emissions, and that broadband is an important enabler of future smart grids in Australia.
But do we need the NBN to implement smart grids? Recent developments would suggest not.
The current ‘smart meter’ roll out in Victoria will rely on wireless connectivity for transmitting data from the meters. Likewise, the planned ‘smart grid’ deployment in NSW by Energy Australia also utilise wireless. Both these initiatives will be deployed ahead of the NBN roll out, utilising technology that is available now. Electricity companies therefore clearly have economically viable options already for monitoring and managing their networks – without the NBN.
From the consumer perspective, it’s also questionable how much of an improvement the NBN can make. Power monitoring tools like Google’s Powermeter are capable of functioning over current internet connections. The main barrier to greater adoption of household energy monitoring tools, like Google Powermeter, would seem to be the lack of participation by Australian energy companies. This is something that may change as their smart meter roll outs progress.
All this suggests the NBN isn’t really a mandatory requirement for ‘smart grid’ deployments. While there may be large benefits through the enablement of smart grids via broadband, the incremental contribution of the NBN may not be as large as the government is hoping.