Smart Grid: Democratized Resources or Surveillance State?

Have you ever heard of the “smart grid”?  Our power grids are overloaded already, and our power needs keep increasing.  There are already rolling brownouts or massive failures happening in some places.  “Smart grid” technologies are a new way for power companies to sell and manage power, and for users to buy power, by monitoring how much is needed at what times and changing the price of power depending on heavy use.  For example, power is in high demand from 9-5, but much less in the middle of the night.  If power was cheaper at night, would people be motivated to run their dishwashers and clothes driers then?  What happens as more people buy electric cars: will the power grid be brought to its knees because everyone comes home at 5pm and plugs in their cars at the same time?

Smart grid meters and appliances are already being rolled out in Ontario and California.  They have great promise to help us control our power needs.  They do it by installing sensors in homes and businesses that monitor people’s use, collecting all of that information via computer networks, and adjusting either the supply of power or the cost of it.  The downside: smart-grid-enabled appliances are loaded with sensors that report to the power company.  They know how many showers you take, they know how often you run your furnace, and whether you’ve used the drier this week.  Will this lead to a more democratic sharing of resources, or a police-state of constant surveillance?

The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers has teamed up with a game design company called Foresight Engine to create a massively-multiplayer game to simulate the problem over the next few days.  You should play.  It’s free, and fascinating.  Read some background info or just try it.   Game play starts today at 1pm Atlantic (noon Eastern), but you can sign up now if you want.  You’ll find me in there as ShiftingPhases.  Good luck…

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