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The materialisation of smart grids, between fictions and realisations

Gregoire Wallenborn, Centre for Studies on Sustainable Development, Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium

Thursday 03 May 2012, 1200-1400
LEC Training Room 2

Department of Sociology/ Society & Environment, Lancaster Environment Centre

The development of the 'smart grids' has much practical and theoretical importance. Smart grids are partially speculative objects, not yet stabilised, around which many different interests are crystallising. Information technologies are supposed to improve the reliability and efficiency of the electricity network while integrating renewables. Many different actors are investing huge amounts of money in the electricity grids in order to integrate intermittent renewables and distributed production to the electrical grid, and to strengthen demand side management. Actors' interests are not always aligned and nobody knows how these interests will be exactly translated in material infrastructures. Engineers dream about a complete automation of the grid that would balance production and consumption at each moment. Economists think that the increase of available information will improve the efficiency of the actors, including the end users. As I reckon that smart grids are a too serious topic to be left in the hands of the engineers and economists, I would like to develop a perspective that would include transition and practice approaches.

The theoretical challenge offered by the smart grids is to find a conceptual frame where production and consumption are thought together and where elements of technology and market are combined. The electricity grid is indeed characterised by the necessity to balance electricity production and consumption at each instant, and by the relative disconnection between electricity and money flows. For instance, 'green electricity' has to be consumed when it is produced and not necessarily by whom buy it. Much of our energy future will be shaped by the implementation of smart grids, but there is a risk to create lock-in situations that would be counter-efficient in the medium term if the developed technology is not open and flexible enough. Besides the stated aims of efficiency, reliability and renewables, the energy conservation objective is absent. A 'smart consumption' would imply less consumption at peak times but could entail an increase in the total electricity consumption. However, all the sensible scenarios about future energy use require an absolute decrease of energy consumption. Today the future of smart grids is not thought within this perspective since it is the development of the current grid. Therefore I suggest that the transition towards sustainable electricity production and consumption needs to be framed in a practice transformation perspective. We are at the historical moment when a new sociotechnical system is emerging: is it possible to steer it? How to prevent lock-in situations?

The presentation in this first part expands on the description of the main smart grid actors and the fictions they dream about. In the second part I focus on the case of the smart meters which will be deployed in many European countries. Their promises, failures, dangers and opportunities are described. Beyond technological and economic fictions, I explore the conditions under which smart grids could be appropriated by users. I suggest that users should have free access to their consumption data, so that a sort of open source movement could develop. The appropriation of the electricity production and consumption requires the possibility to understand and manipulate the different objects integrated into the grids. I conclude thus with an alternative socio-political fiction in which active users participate to the materialisation of functionalities, usages and meanings of the new grids.