Building A Better Electric Grid

Erich Gunther, chairman, Chief Technology Officer, EnerNex, senior member, IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), member of the IEEE's Smart Grid Task Force, Knoxville, Tenn.

Karen Herter, Herter Energy Research Solutions, El Dorado Hills, Calif.

Alex Laskey, president and founder, OPower, Arlington, Va.

The nation's electrical grid is getting old, not just in its infrastructure, but in the technology used to run it. In this segment, Ira Flatow and guests discuss the grid, its problems, and how new technology can be used to make the grid "smarter." Will consumers sign on?

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IRA FLATOW, host: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Up next, an update on our electrical grid. Here's a headline, interesting headline that caught my eye this week, it's from Thursday of last week: Power Outage Closes FERC Offices.

Now, if you don't know what FERC, it's one of those great Washington, Beltway abbreviations for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. That's the federal agency responsible for maintaining electric grid reliability across the U.S. And, of course, the irony here is that a blackout forced them to close their offices.

And if we can't keep the lights on for people in charge of maintaining the grid, what does that mean for the rest of us? It's not even summer yet, and we've already had a couple of 100-degree days here on the East Coast, Southwest. Air conditioners are humming. Can our groaning grid withstand the load?

How far along are we in moving toward the so-called smart grid? What kinds of engineering challenges remain to modernize the grid that will function more like the Internet or a network that can easily take power from other alternative sources like wind and solar?

These are some of the issues we'll be talking about for the rest of the hour. Let me introduce my guests. Erich Gunther is chair and chief technology officer for EnerNex. He's also senior member of the IEEE. That's the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. And he's a member of the IEEE's Smart Grid Task Force. He's here in our New York studios. Thanks for being with us today.

ERICH GUNTHER: Thank you. It's a privilege to be invited.

FLATOW: Well, thank you. Karen Herter is president of Herter Energy Research Solutions in El Dorado Hills, California. She joins us from the studios of Capital Public Radio in Sacramento. Karen Herter, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Dr. KAREN HERTER: Thanks, Ira. It's a real honor to be here.

FLATOW: Let's - Eric, let's talk about that solar flare that was mentioned earlier in the program. I have a little note here that it actually was measured.

GUNTHER: Yeah. There was a way to measure it. The Electric Power Research Institute has a network of monitoring devices they're continuing to expand that measure directly the impact on our large transformers. That was mentioned in the earlier segment.

And there was a measurable impact, but very small, nothing to be concerned about. So we had a near-miss. The majority of the coronal mass ejection went towards Mars, and without a grid there, we didn't really have anything to worry about.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: It says here between two and five amps. That's like your TV set, you know.

GUNTHER: Well, yeah. It's a small amount of current, and, you know, 10 to 100 times more would have been bad, but it was measured.

FLATOW: How did it get into the grid, through the wires, the actual wires, the high-tension wires that are strung up everywhere?

GUNTHER: Yeah, and what happens is a large current gets induced due to that - the event from the sun, and it looks like a large, direct current due to the exposure from the transmission lines, and it's felt most by the transformers. And when it sees that direct current - it's normally used to alternating current - it causes the transformer to behave in ways we don't like. And it can be very quickly overloaded and fail if - or the protection equipment can trip it offline, like happened in 1989 in Quebec.

FLATOW: How much have we learned from that, 1989 in Quebec?

GUNTHER: Well, we learned quite a bit, understand how to - understand the breadth of the effects that can occur, how to measure and monitor the impacts, the impact it'll have on the protective relaying equipment that's used to keep the grid operating.

FLATOW: But is it the same grid, basically?

GUNTHER: It's - well, it's the same grid. The difference is we're using it a lot more. We're relying more and more on the transmission lines to move power from one area to the other. Some of our transmission - our transmission facilities and transformers are running at higher levels than their capacity than we've seen in the past. And all of those kinds of things makes it a little bit more of a problem if we have an event and we trip a number of them offline.

FLATOW: You know, we were talking before - I say one of the great jokes in nuclear fusion is that it's always 30 years away. It seems like - I mean, we've been on SCIENCE FRIDAY now over 20 years. We've been talking about the electric grid for 20 years, and it always seems like real soon now, it's going to get fixed, you know.

GUNTHER: Well, I mean, you know, it's a large infrastructure made up of lots of equipment, some very simple, some very complex. And just like a bridge, it needs periodic maintenance. It needs periodic replacement.

The components only have a finite lifetime. One of the problems we face is that a whole lot of the infrastructure was built all around the same time. So we have quite a bit of it that is aging and coming to near end of life in one shot. So a lot of the things we're trying to do with a smart grid is to find ways to delay, as long as we can, the need to make those wholesale replacements, extract more out of what we have.

FLATOW: Dr. Herter, what is the difference, then, between the grid and a smart grid? Does the term smart grid mean something entirely new, or is a matter of building on what we have already?

HERTER: It's really the latter. I mean, it's adding onto what we already have. The grid that we have, you start with power plants where you generate electricity. That gets sent over the transmission lines, which then gets sent to the distribution lines, which is what most people think of as the telephone poles that are outside their home, to your meters on your home, or maybe on your business.

And when you want to make it a smart grid, what the utilities are adding: distribution, automation. They're adding advanced metering infrastructure. And in the future, what we're hoping to do is add some consumer technologies that allow consumers to become more involved in what's going on in the grid.

FLATOW: How much of this is a big engineering challenge, and how much is it using stuff we already know how to do?

HERTER: It's mainly using stuff we already know how to do, but it's still a challenge getting all of the people and networks working together to get it in place.

FLATOW: All those people, with different interests. Is it something that takes slowly putting different pieces together, or is it something like, you know, that's going to take a giant federal effort to get the whole thing made at one time?

HERTER: Well, it's a little of both. We've been working on this for over a decade now. I - well, I could say much longer than that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: I could certainly say much longer than that. Yeah.

HERTER: Yeah, yeah. I mean, some of the systems that we consider smart grid systems have been in place for decades, the SCADA systems. There are communications systems already built into the system that some people would consider smart grid, depending on what definition you use.

And like Erich was saying, at this point, a lot of the oldest infrastructure is starting to fall apart, and it's just a matter of: Do we replace that with what we already have and already understand, or do we start to try to use our - all of the work that we've done over the last 50 years.

We have better information technologies. We have digital meters now instead of the electromechanical ones that give us a lot of abilities that we didn't have before.

FLATOW: Let me ask you both to paint a picture for me, and I'm thinking of a world's fair. Now, in the old world's fairs - and the last one I went to was in '64, '65 -there were these rides that would take you into the future. We'd see the future of transportation. We'd see the future of food. They give us examples of what that world would look like.

Make believe we're creating a ride into the future of the electric grid, and I go by. What are the new things that I would see being operated, how they would operate? What would I be seeing on that ride, Erich? Start that ride out for me.

GUNTHER: Well, first of all, in the far future, I would hope that we don't have to see any physical widgets or - and the like. It would just do the right thing. Whatever the customer wants from their comfort point of view, you know, we have systems that are able to detect that, detect our presence, buy the energy at the lowest possible price, and we don't have to go to websites or buy fancy devices and...

FLATOW: Working in the background.

GUNTHER: It just does the right thing automatically. That would be the far future.

FLATOW: And what would the right thing be? What do we want it to do?

GUNTHER: See, that's the trick, because everyone wants to optimize for something different. I may want to have the lowest possible price. My neighbor may want to have the best reliability, always on. Somebody else might optimize for the smallest impact on the global environment, and other ones just care about the air quality next door. So that's the big challenge. We - you know, automatically optimizing, but optimizing the optimization is going to be a real challenge.

FLATOW: And Dr. Herter?

HERTER: Yeah. I think from the consumer's perspective, there are going to be a lot of changes in terms of their choices. I think there will be a lot more choices for them to take advantage of. One of the - really the place where the smart grid meets the computer - sorry, the consumer - is the computer, is the digital meter, of course, that's going on the side of the homes, the smart meters.

And the only difference between these new meters and the old meters is that they are able to collect data every hour or every 15 minutes, and that data is transmitted back to the utility. That's really it. It's not too much more than that. I could go into detail, but I won't.

And what that allows for is better information about energy use in homes to help educate customers. It allows them to manage their energy use better. Utilities can now offer websites. They can offer better bills. They can offer more effective energy efficiency programs, rate options.

Customers might have the option to purchase smart appliances that work with these energy efficiency programs, rate options. There are already apps for the iPhone or other mobile technologies that provide energy information about your home. Wherever you are, you can control your appliances from your phone or from some other application on a computer.

You can use these to - for better system management in your home, which increases your options, also, from the utility side to purchase renewable energy. Now, if - customers have the option to purchase more renewable energy if they're able to manage their loads better, because renewable energy is intermittent.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let me bring in another guest to talk about how some of this technology might help consumers save money, reduce the amount of CO2. Alex Laskey is president and founder of OPOWER. He joins us by phone from Arlington, Virginia. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

ALEX LASKEY: Oh, my pleasure. Thanks for having me, Ira.

FLATOW: What service do you offer us in saving electricity and managing it better?

LASKEY: Sure. We work with utilities, and now we're working with almost 60 of them across the U.S. to do - to bring to life a little bit of what Karen described, which is that we're taking this data that's coming off smart meters. And in fact, we're taking off - taking data off the old-fashion meters that are read by two-legged meter readers. But we're taking the data, and the data alone isn't that interesting to us - maybe to the geeks on this radio program, and I know I'm in good company here, it's interesting. But the data alone is not interesting to the overwhelming majority of folks.

So what we do is we take the data on behalf of the utility, and run analytics and transform that data into interesting insights about each customer. And then, under the cover of the utility, deliver better information to customers through the mail, online through emails, text messages, phone calls - all to begin to identify for customers the opportunities that they have to save. And for each house and for each home owner or renter, the opportunities are different, given both their particular lifestyles as well as the house or apartments they live in.

FLATOW: So you take away all the homework from the consumer?

LASKEY: That's right.

FLATOW: ...dealing with all the numbers and statistics and things?

LASKEY: That's - yeah, that's precisely the case.

FLATOW: And do you determine if they have, like, a swimming pool, for example?

LASKEY: Yeah. So we get - we try and get our hands on as much data as we possibly can, both from the utility itself, where we get the meter data. And the data coming off of these smart meters is much more interesting because it's coming at a much higher frequency, so we can begin to even identify that there's a swimming pool. But we also go to the county assessor's offices and get all the housing data from each county, so we know, not only the particular energy signal coming off of your house, but how old the house is and what the building code likely was, whether there is a swimming pool or at least whether you have one permitted. And the combination of those data sets, we can derive insights.

FLATOW: Doesn't it kind of freak people out, to know that you know so much about their homes, they - even have a swimming pool, things like that?

LASKEY: Well, it doesn't. I mean, we live in an age where there's - I think people are pretty - have a pretty realistic understanding that there's a lot of data out there - certainly, the fact that they have a swimming pool as of no surprise to anyone. You know, it's fairly public. And you can go to Google Maps and figure out who has swimming pools. But, no, actually, people's response is quite the opposite. It's quite positive. People feel like they have a right to know this information. They have a right to know how they're doing, how they compare, what they could be doing to save.

You think about the utility bill that we've all been getting for as long as we've been receiving utility bills, it's absolutely Byzantine. It's impossible, it's inscrutable and impossible to understand. The only thing that you understand when you get your utility bill is this is how much money I owe, and this is where I send the check. And so the utilities recognize that they need to provide a new level of service in this information age, a service that provides some help and control to the customer. And, yes, some of that involves getting better data to provide that advice.

FLATOW: All right. We're talking about the infrastructure and smart grid this hour at SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Alex Laskey. So then you work for the utility companies. In other words, the consumers don't contact you. You work with utility companies.

LASKEY: That's right.

FLATOW: And you're sort of the intermediary and show the people with the bills where their money is going to and how they might save energy.

LASKEY: That's exactly right. And it's working. We're now - we've been up and running for three years with our longest running program. And we're now, by the end of this year, we will be serving over 10 million households on behalf of utilities across the U.S. And the way we know it's working is that on average, the customers who are receiving these communications - and as you identify down a single customer signs up for this. We just start delivering information to customers.

FLATOW: What...

LASKEY: But the average household is saving between two and three percent of their energy.

FLATOW: Do you...

LASKEY: Two, three percent - go ahead.

FLATOW: No, I was just going to ask, because I'm working with the clock here, and I want to get - so much to ask. We've talked to psychologists who say that the best way to influence people is to tell them what their neighbors are doing. Your neighbors are saving all this kind of electricity if they do X, Y, Z. Do you use those kinds of information?

LASKEY: Yeah, that's exactly right. We've been using that for three years, showing people how they're doing, despite the best of parent - best parenting jobs, you know, you can't help it but you're interested in know how you're doing and what other people are doing. And you, well, you know, in an age where we're overwhelmed with information, we find ourselves modeling our behavior on what we see other people doing.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And it works.

LASKEY: It totally works. We are almost at having saved 400 gigawatt hours, which is a big number. I mean, it's equivalent to powering the Empire State Building for seven years. We are on path to save people over $200 million in the next 18 months on their electric bills, so it's substantial.

FLATOW: All right. Thank you very much, Alex, for taking time to be with us. And good luck to you.

LASKEY: Oh, my pleasure. Thanks so much for having me. Good luck.

FLATOW: Thank you. Alex Laskey is president and founder of OPOWER. He was joining us from Arlington, Virginia. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Erich, you think those - that's a good way to work?

GUNTHER: Well, yeah. That's a - when you're focused on the consumer side, it's an excellent way to work. The main thing I wanted to point out, though, that - is the whole smart metering thing, the end consumer piece, is just one tiny piece of overall smart grid applications and grid modernization. There's a lot of other things that have to be considered besides just that.

FLATOW: And that's what I hope to - we have to go to a break, but that's what I hope to get into when we come back. There's a lot more going on with the grid and modernization. And there are a lot of people who are afraid of the grid. A lot of people say, you know, if you want to have a reliable grid, don't make it bigger. Make it smaller. And then when some little piece goes out, you don't have to worry about the rest of the country.

So we're going to talk about that when we get back. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us @scifri, @S-C-I-F-R-I. Go to our Facebook page, talk to folks up there - we're discussing it - and our homepage at sciencefriday.com. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about the grid, the electric grid and smart grid technology. My guests are Karen Herter, president of Herter Energy Research Solutions in El Dorado Hills, California; Erich Gunther, chairman and chief technology officer for EnerNex. He's also the senior member of the IEEE - that's the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers - and a member of the IEEE's Smart Grid Task Force.

When we went to the break, Erich, you mentioned that there's a lot more to the grid than just smart meters. Let's talk about what else there is to the grid, about the new technology. Give us an example of an old technology and one that a smart grid, how it will replace the old one.

GUNTHER: Well, I'm going to, you know, go to one that maybe you weren't expecting, but electric vehicles, OK? So with electric vehicles, old technology replacing, you know, fossil fuel transportation. But the impact on the electric grid is something that we got to plan for and a major aspect of grid modernization. We're moving from a situation where we'd have to charge those vehicles at, let's say, at night. As we would like to, which would be great. But if everyone plugs in at the same time - and they don't listen to us and plug it in at night and plug it in at the peak - we have the potential for overloading parts of the grid that weren't designed to handle that level of energy flow at that one time.

So we need smart grid, just to be able to allow us the privilege of moving to electrified transportation, which entails almost every other aspect of demand response. We've experimented with a path - in the past price response, demand response, direct load control.

FLATOW: Any of those work?

GUNTHER: Well, we've been doing it for a number of years on a variety of scales and different areas, and we definitely know that it works.

FLATOW: So if you price electricity high during the day, they will plug in at night.

GUNTHER: That they will. And, of course, as I was mentioning earlier, it would be nice if the electric vehicle knows about the price, so I don't have to think about it. I plug it in when the price is low. My dryer will turn on at the right time and use the electric element there. My vehicle will charge at the right time.

FLATOW: Right, right. One example. Now give me another example of the new technology.

GUNTHER: Well, another new technology is just all the sensors that we use on our system to better manage the electric power assets. Again, these are things that happen behind the scenes, things that we don't see, things that are necessary to keep the system more reliable. So brand-new technology, phasor measurement units that allows to monitor the grid much more effectively than we've done before. So we got a better chance of keeping the lights on longer.

FLATOW: Well, a lot of the problems that happened with the brownouts is that they were human errors, right? People pulled the wrong levers, pushed the wrong buttons, turned the wrong knobs. Can we do away with some of those human errors in a smarter grid?

GUNTHER: Well, the more we rely on technology, you know, the more opportunity there are for both, you know, technical failures, but we also run into more potential for a human to put himself in the loop, as well as to cause a brownout. I don't think we're going to get rid of that, but certainly by adding more automation, we have the potential for reducing many of these classes of human error.

FLATOW: And what about getting more electricity into the grid from - you know, you talked about cars that can use it, but we're now having solar and wind and things like that.

GUNTHER: Good segue to what I wanted also to mention. Rooftop photovoltaics, an obvious example. You know, pretty soon we'll be able to buy whole kits and, you know, from Home Depot and be able to put them on, a lot of people installing them. Again, the grid needs to be modernized in many ways in order to give us the privilege to do that.

Most parts of the power grid, especially the distribution system, was not designed for putting energy into the grid. And there's a lot that goes into figuring out whether it can handle it or not. And of course, who's going to pay for the privilege to allow us to, you know, to make a little bit of money, maybe, injecting that to the grid or to participate in the greening of our energy source.

FLATOW: Karen Herter, what I hear Erich is saying, it's going to cost money to build more power capability, so that my wind farm that I've never had before can now hook up to the grid. Who's going to pay for that?

HERTER: Well, everybody has to pay for that at some point, because there's a great need at this point for more renewables in the system. And whether it's regulatory, whether it's energy independence, the environment or domestic job growth, it's an important part of our energy future, is renewables. The intermittency of renewables makes it a bit of a management nightmare, trying to get the solar is shining when we need it or the wind is blowing when we need it. We can't do that. So what we do need to do is have smarts in the grid to be able to fill the valleys and to reduce those peaks so that we have a stable system.

FLATOW: Let's go Logan in Richfield, Ohio. Hi, Logan. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

LOGAN: Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: Hi there.

LOGAN: Hi. Hi, Ira. I know it's probably my Amish background, but I think we're really going in the wrong direction with the computerized grid. And it's — certainly the grid has to be brought up to date, but the centralization where the grid is controlled by computer systems is so scary. Stuxnet is just the first word I'd throw out there. When you can close down grids or portions of the grid from some place in Iran or - Iran just had a Stuxnet - from some place else in the world, we expose ourselves to threats.

Ira, if people were good and systems were engineered properly and engineers were smart, we wouldn't have a thing to worry about in the world. But people aren't good and systems aren't always working the way they should work.

FLATOW: There are some smart engineers. I must throw in there, in their defense.

LOGAN: I've got two daughters who are biochemists, Ira, so I know there are smart people out there. But, I've got to tell you that...

FLATOW: I know. I got your point. I got your point. Let me get an answer to that. It's a good question. Erich?

GUNTHER: Yeah. I mean, I firmly believe that distributed command and control, much more distributed, is, you know, is a way to deal with a lot of those issues. We've had, in the history of the - running the grid now, has been centralized for all this time. There are about large exceptions of where we have a lot of intelligence out in the edges of the grid, but distributing things more so that we...

FLATOW: What do you mean? So we have separate control points so you can block out something from crossing over?

GUNTHER: You know, basically, more autonomous control. So when we're trying to optimize various parts of the grid in one area, have that out in the remote substations that are out there and let them automate as much of that as possible to protect the system, so that issues - and these kinds of problems can't propagate very quickly and widely.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Karen, do you agree?

HERTER: Yeah, I definitely agree with that.

FLATOW: Is this a legitimate concern that we had from our caller?

HERTER: Yes, absolutely a legitimate concern, and Erich is right that more distributed systems is a good idea. And another way to avoid that kind of concern, I think, a lot of people are concerned about the utility reaching out and controlling their appliances, and that's what the smart grid is. That's not necessarily what the smart grid is. There are other ways to incent customers to customers to change their loads, for example, if you give them pricing, and there's really those two ways.

Right now, we have load control programs. There - most utilities have air-conditioning load control programs. They pay customers for the ability to manage their air-conditioning use. But if you - if you just set the right price signal is another option, and then as long as customers are given the option of those two choices, then there shouldn't be any trouble.

FLATOW: You know, the - you have to know that you have that option. I know, for example, on my dishwasher, it'll say start in four hours. Now, that could be in the middle of the night and where the load is lower. Sometimes, we have to be given that option, right, Erich, to know that we can do that?

GUNTHER: Well, you know that you can do it and know that it makes a difference and, of course, having the regulatory elements in place that you have pricing that can give you a break at night so that you can make that decision and save some money. But if you don't want to, you want to pay it through and do the wash or whatever when you want to, hey, you can pay for it.

FLATOW: We also have to have a commitment to build the grid, don't we? I mean, if - we've talked to farmers and cattlemen or ranchers over the years who have their own wind power and solar power. They want to hook up to the grid but the grid ends five meters away from their little endpoint.

GUNTHER: Yeah. Access, especially for wind power, you know, is an issue. You know, most of the wind occurs in areas where there's limited transmission capabilities. So, in order to do more and provide more wind, we have to build the transmission, but, again, someone's got to pay for that. So you got to do a very detailed cost-benefit analysis on how...

FLATOW: But you would think this creates jobs. We're talking about creating jobs in America. Building the grid would seem to be the kind of - you could create lots of different kinds of jobs in every different kind of industry.

GUNTHER: Especially with infrastructure. We got a lot of bridges to build and fix, and we've got a lot of portions of our electric infrastructure that needs to be upgraded and replaced just to keep it running, let alone, try to capture more renewable energy.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Ted(ph) in Little Egg, New Jersey. Hi, Ted.

TED: Hi. How's it going?

FLATOW: Hey there.

TED: I have a comment on the program that's going on right now.

FLATOW: Sure. Go ahead.

TED: You know, talking about smart grids and saving money here and there, it's kind of interesting. Last year, I had a - I got a letter from my utility company, and it's kind of a paradox. They mentioned that demand was down because of the power saving, more efficient air-conditioning units, CFL bulbs. And since the demand was down, our rates were going to go up. So it kind of whops or washes out the savings by decreased demand, but then the rates go up at the same time. So, you know, I'd like to have them comment on...

FLATOW: Right. Why is it in the interest of power companies to sell you less power?

GUNTHER: Well, that always is an interesting one people talk about, you know. I got a business selling energy and, you know, I'm going to pay people to use less. I mean, that, you know, that's a little, you know, contradictory in normal thinking every once in a while. But, you know, the fact is that it's really related to, it's much more expensive for us to develop and generate energy during the peak times than it is in the evening.

So getting well-structured programs together, preferably, you know, price-responsive, demand response, so that you can shift the usage and even it out and take maximum advantage of the capacity of our system is what we would like to do.

FLATOW: Now, why can't we integrate, you know, the things that are burgeoning now? And everybody loves their smart phones: your iPhone, your Android. Why can't I now, away from my home, start adjusting things on that or having my home talk to me through my phone?

GUNTHER: Well, I certainly can do that on mine, and folks that know me know that I do it all the time.

FLATOW: What's that?

GUNTHER: I can do it on my iPad, I can do it on my iPhone, you know. Those technologies have been around for a long time. I have been - my home has been automated for about 15 years, and I've had a Web interface to it for a little over 10 so...

FLATOW: Yeah. But you know the right people.

GUNTHER: Right, exactly right, so it can be done. But now we have people that sell you, you know, stuff that you can do that now, and it's becoming much more available. You can buy some of these things, you know, at your Home Depot store or...

FLATOW: But why doesn't the utility company help us with that, give us a rate decrease if we buy this stuff to spur us or maybe a tax break or something like that?

GUNTHER: Well, again, the - from the utility point of view, there's a - certain amount of cost to what it takes to generate energy at different times of the day. And, you know, and that, in a regulated environment, is passed onto the consumer. What we need to be able to do is to get consumers, through their technology, to understand when it's better to use energy more and less.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

GUNTHER: And, you know, so that we can reduce that overall infrastructure cost.

FLATOW: Michael(ph) in Patagonia, Arizona. Hi, Michael.

MICHAEL: Hi, Ira. How are you?

FLATOW: Hi there. Go ahead.

MICHAEL: Yeah. I just wanted to comment on the use of the smart meters. I think they're an awesome technology to be able to get feedback on our usage. However, I wanted to bring up a drawback in the installing of - the compulsory installing of these wireless meters on our homes. My wife has a severe environmental illness and has electromagnetic energy sensitivity. And having the smart meter in our home is something that we could never do. And there are more and more people out there like that who cannot handle or have debilitating physical effects from having those wireless meters put on their homes.

FLATOW: All right. Michael, let me take your call and just remind everybody that this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. Karen Herter, there is - there are a lot of people who are scared of electric meters...

HERTER: Sure. Right. And...

FLATOW: ...of the wireless. And does he have a legitimate concern?

HERTER: You know, I'm not a biophysicist, so I can't answer that directly, but his concern is real and a lot of people have the same concern. What I can tell you is what the experts say. And what the experts say is that there's no major health effect from the meters, that the level of RF that comes from a smart meter is much, much lower than what you would get from a standard cell phone - in addition, that's only when they're transmitting. Meters - these meters only transmit data for about three minutes in the middle of a night. EPRI did a study in, just this year, in front of the - they put 10 meters together, and then they measured the RF from those meters. And found...

FLATOW: The radio frequencies coming out.

HERTER: Sorry, yes, the radio frequency. And they found that the level, at one foot away in front of the meters when it was transmitting, was less than 10 percent of the FCC safety limit. And behind the meter, which is where you would be living, right, in your home, it was less than one percent of the FCC safety limits. So right now, the empirical evidence isn't there, that it causes any trouble but, certainly, the concerns are out there. And concerns are always real and they should be addressed.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255. You're shaking your head, Erich.

GUNTHER: I - no, I totally agree. The concerns are real. And, you know, we have to be able to deal with those issues.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Do you think that people - the more they learn about smart meters, smart grids, things like that?

GUNTHER: Well, I mean, you know, people are fundamentally, you know, most people don't like change. So - and people find all sorts of interesting ways to resist it. And, you know, in this case, you know, the fear of the unknown is, you know, certainly an issue. But in this particular one, there's a lot more things that I would personally be more concerned about, you know, RF exposure from microwave ovens, from, you know, from your cell phone, my BlackBerry and everything else.

FLATOW: But they're also worried about their invasion of privacy.

GUNTHER: And - well, the privacy thing is certainly one that's come up several times. And people thinking that the government is looking into their home and the like. And, of course, you know, our utilities are, you know, the investor owns - are not government run. And this is something that we're trying to provide through smart metering and these capabilities, giving consumers the tools that they choose, if they want to, to utilize to better manage their energy and usage and cost.

FLATOW: With all the things that are on people's minds, how do you get this - people to pay attention to this? Do we have to wait for a brownout and something this summer?

GUNTHER: Well, I can argue that a lot of the current interest in smart grid today is a direct result of a chain of events that occurred after the, you know, August blackout of 2003. We started talking about smart meters and the Energy Policy Act of 2005. And we talked about smart grid and the Energy Independence Act of 2007, got some money behind it with ARA funding. But it all evolved, I think, from a - you know, from that blackouts, yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah. And then, Dr. Herter, do you agree?

HERTER: Not quite. I would say it evolves more from the California energy crisis in 2000, 2001...

FLATOW: Yeah.

HERTER: ...that was when there were a lot of blackouts. There were good folks at the Energy Commission under Art Rosenfeld who did a lot of work on smart meters and dynamic pricing. And I think that was really the catalyst, and that's what blossomed into the current smart grid movement.

FLATOW: Well, thank you both for the intelligent discussion. Thank you. Very interesting. I want to thank both of my guests, Erich Gunther, he's chairman and chief technology officer for EnerNex. He's also senior member of IEEE, that's the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and a member of the IEEE's Smart Grid Task Force. Karen Herter is president of Herter Energy Research Solutions in El Dorado Hills, California. Thank you both for taking time. Have a good weekend to both of you.

HERTER: Thank you, Ira.

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