Smart meters can destabilize grid, study says

Technology News |
By eeNews Europe

Scientists from the Bremen University aired doubts that the approach can work. Instead, will the widespread deployment of smart meters lead to chaotic grid behaviour and cause more black-outs.
The idea behind the smart grid is that electricity consumption will be adapted to power generation. In grids where renewable energy sources are dominating factor, power generation will vary according to various conditions like sunlight for solar power and wind force for wind turbines. In times when much energy is generated, electricity will be cheaper than in times of low sunlight and no wind. Users can program their electric appliances like washing machines so that they are doing their job when energy generation is high and the price therefore is low. This concept however might be too short-sighted and will fail, a team of scientists from the University of Bremen’s Institute of Theoretical Physics has figured out.

The team around professor Stefan Bornholdt simulated the behaviour of the market that will arise from the massive use of smart meters. The result of their studies is surprising: The usage of smart meters will create an artificial energy market prone to produce bubbles and even crashes – much like the financial or real estate markets.

Electric energy, Bornholdt observes, never has been fed into the grid evenly; there have always been variations over time. Wind and solar power however significantly increase these variations due to their natural parameters like sunshine and wind intensity. The idea behind making smart meters mandatory is to dampen these oscillations by varying the price according to supply and demand of electrical energy. Users of, for example, a washing machines, thus will program their machine so that it only starts washing after a the price has fallen below a pre-defined level. “This basic concept comes from the economic theory that says that supply and demand regulate the price”, says professor Bornholdt. “This theory however is incomplete if a huge amount of consumers competes to the best price. Because, of course, everyone intends to do his laundry when the price is lowest.

This model however possibly won’t work: The simulation shows that in such a competing situation the market behaviour will tend to be wild, erratic and chaotic. An example: If the energy supply is low and therefore the price is high, most users simply will tend to postpone their energy consumption. But they won’t be able to do this at infinitum, explains Bornholdt. “The more machines are waiting to get started, the higher the potential demand: A bubble forms. This bubble will burst at latest in the moment the price level falls slightly. Because many consumers have postponed their washing schedule, countless washers will start to wash suddenly at the same time. “This triggers a collective avalanche mechanism that charges the grids extremely”, Bornholdt says. “This situation makes black-outs much more probable.”

According to the conclusion of the research team, the massive deployment of smart meters is a “quick shot” that has not been thought through. “In our computing model we reproduced with various variables what real humans would logically do in such situations. “In such situations, the individual does not know which consequences arise from his actions if it is multiplied. And unfortunately those who supply the energy do not know either.”

The study of the Bremen scientists has been published in the Physical Review of the American Physical Society. For more details, see


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