Smart meters can destabilize grid, study says

July 25, 2015 // By Christoph Hammerschmidt
In some geographies including Germany, smart meters are mandatory for new buildings – being an ingredient of smart grids, they allow energy suppliers to match energy generation and consumption by implementing differentiated tariffs and help users to optimize energy consumption profiles.

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