In the current electric power system, there is little or no feedback between the power utility and the consumers, and data on electricity usage is collected and reported as total usage over a long intervals (e.g., monthly). As a consequence, utilities must maintain a large amount of excess capacity to deal with whatever maximum load peaks are likely to occur. This excess capacity tends to be much more expensive and dirtier to produce that the power than is required to meet the base load. The lack of effective two-way communication between consumers and their utility company in the current power system is a direct result of the lack of effective communication and data-gathering within the system architecture.
The smart grid fundamentally changes this situation, and in so doing opens the door to much more effective interactions between power producers and power consumers. Smart meters collect data on energy usage at approximately 15 minute intervals. This frequent data collection enables utility companies to institute practices such as dynamic pricing, in which the cost of electricity varies with the state of the grid, and demand management, in which customers can save money by having devices dynamically respond to signals from the utility. Smart grid design also assumes a significant component of the electric supply will come from distributed sources, such as small solar systems, wind farms, or methane digesters, owned and controlled by individual consumers rather than by electric utilities.
Students in the Smart Grid IGERT program are investigating how human behavior impacts a wide variety of aspects of power usage. For instance, students are examining Twitter feeds and using them to learn statistical patterns in people’s moods in response to energy events, such as blackouts. Students are developing computer programs by which scientists can develop effective hypotheses using crowd-sourcing, and applying this to development of incentives to promote energy efficiency. Students are collaborating with scientists in UVM’s psychiatry program to develop new incentive structures to encourage greater consumer participation with energy usage. Other students are modeling how social influence between people combines with economic decisions to influence market penetration of electric vehicles.