Smart Grid City

According to the AP, an administrative judge last week capped at $45 million the cost-overruns of Xcel’s “Smart Grid City” demonstration project in Boulder, Colorado. I haven’t been following this particular project, but I have been tracking similar cases in other cities, and I assure you, smart grid is the biggest rip-off in contemporary energy policy (after ethanol).

Ask anyone what a “smart grid” is, and you’ll get a different answer every time. In Boulder, it’s a fiber optical network. In Baltimore, it’s a “ZigBee” local area network. In Oklahoma City, it’s GE Smart Meters. They all were spawned of the stimulus, which showered more than $3 billion to utilities across the country to subsidize any boondoggle that called itself “smart grid.”

This is the sort of social policy that makes regulated utilities salivate. It’s ill-defined and capital intensive. Moreover, it promises to grow, like the blob. Today, it’s scores of millions of dollars of cost overruns in Boulder; tomorrow, it’s hundreds of millions of dollars in Denver.

And for what? Smart grid is a means to an end–namely, “demand side management.” The idea is to “manage” energy demand by, say, remotely adjusting thermostats in the homes of hundreds of thousands of utility customers , so as to draw down demand and avoid taxing the electricity grid. With smart grid technologies, your local utility can become your Big Brother.

There is, of course, a much easier way to “manage” demand: Price electricity what it costs. ¬†Energy consumers would voluntarily reduce consumption during periods of high demand, because they would have an incentive (higher prices) to do so.

Unfortunately, local politicians have every incentive to maintain control over the price of electricity. After all, energy is the “master-resource,” so controlling its cost is a powerful political chip. Hence, the allure of “demand side management.” It affords local politicians control over the price of electricity AND control over demand. That way, they can avoid the inimical effects of price controls by controlling demand (that is, by controlling your thermostat). The losers, naturally, are the consumers, who must shoulder the added costs and inefficiencies inherent to a “managed” market.