Sociology and technological totalitarianism

June 5th, 2017, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: Energize, Articles: Vector


My encounter with sociology goes back several months when a statement made in the media that we needed more engineers in society to uplift standards, among others, was met with horror by two sociology professors, who seemed to regard engineers  as inhuman creatures only interested in technology.

Mike Rycroft

It includes a recent encounter with a starry-eyed young sociologist involved in running the sociology course for engineering students at a local university, who mentioned the problems, trying to get engineers to take the course seriously. All this reinforced my impression that sociologists have very little idea of what motivates engineers, and often misinterpret our motives as being technology rather than people focused.

However, some things have happened recently which lead me to believe that the sociologists may be right. The latest is a statement by an industry expert that the grid is moving from demand-driven, load-following, to generation-driven, generation-following. This is an innocent enough statement but has underlying implications which need consideration. Deeper investigation reveals that this is being driven by the difficulty in managing the variable and unpredictable output or renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.

The vehicle being used i,s of course demand side management (DSM), which has served us well during energy shortages, but it is questionable whether our whole energy paradigm should be based on this. The philosophy of DSM has been creeping its way subtly into the scene for a long time now. Not directly, but lurking in the background. The idea seems to be that, if only we could get people to change their behavior, then renewable energy ceases to be a problem.

So the problem is not renewable energy at all, but the end-users, who selfishly demand that electricity should be available when they need it. If we can convince people to change their lifestyle to match the availability of this variable and intermittent resource, the problem would be solved. Storage and curtailment of electricity is not necessary. DSM taken to the extreme is a move back to the pre-industrial age where you had to literally make hay while the sun shone, and the mill could only grind corn when the wind was blowing.

The sociological impact of such a scheme does not seem to have been investigated, but I can foresee that trying to force this type of behavior on people could result in revolt or abuse. Maybe engineers do need to understand sociology and human behavior and should take this into account before departing on paths which could lead to disaster.

This attitude is exemplified in a recent suggestion that the batteries in electric vehicles (EVs) could be used to supply power to the grid during the evening peak. So, all those good citizens who have EVs will obediently allow the utility to drain the batteries during peak periods, happy in the knowledge that they are contributing to reducing the load on the utility plant. Sounds like something out of Big Brother, and very much like technological totalitarianism.

This is not as fanciful as it might seem, as revealed by a recent announcement that a major manufacturer of home storage systems intends to team up with a utility to provide home storage systems to the utility customers at reduced rates, with the proviso that the utility had first option on the stored energy during peak demand periods.

This is actually a “soft” form of DSM, which does not control when you use energy, but rather when you draw energy from the grid. Ultimately, the home storage unit is under the control of the utility, which is convenient as they would not have to build network-scale storage to achieve their goals. Ten thousand 5 kW units would give 50 MW of “virtual storage”.

To make this advantageous to the end-user would require an intelligent energy management system which could respond to price signals from the utility, or alternatively to place control of energy storage in the hands of the utility as well, allowing it to control both over-demand and oversupply.

Very few people would bother to spend a good deal of their time managing their energy usage and comparing daily and hourly electricity costs and availability. There are systems where this is possible. I believe that in New Zealand it is possible to decide on your electricity supplier on a daily or hourly basis, but who really has time for this? Not to fear, for technology has a solution for this and there are systems which will make the decision for you.

A bit of further research reveals that this is not an isolated case, and there are several similar pilot systems in operation around the world. Not only that, but many utilities are apparently considering installing behind-the-meter storage on customers’ premises, with the same access conditions.

I, for one, would baulk at such a suggestion. The architects of this scheme do not seem to have much knowledge of human nature, and are totally ignorant of the failure of other such schemes to get people to fit in with technological or other ideologies.

Do they really think that people can be convinced by pricing or other means to subjugate their convenience or desires to the needs of some variable generation technology? Not everyone is subservient to the goals of technology, although there are subtle attempts at social engineering by those pursuing this goal for its own sake.

Technology is meant to serve the needs of mankind, not the other way round. To try and get people to alter their needs or expectations to accommodate a particular technology is ridiculous.

Recent events point to the failure of attempts to influence people’s behavior in the pursuit of a questionable environmental goal. The diesel vehicle scandal is a case in point. European and British motorists were encouraged to change to diesel vehicles because of the lower CO2 emissions, but it now turns out that diesel powered vehicles cause real air pollution of other kinds, and owners are to be subject to heavy taxes and levies to encourage them to move away from diesel.

Another example is wood burning stoves and the use of wood pellets in power stations. Wood burning stoves were encouraged because they were supposed to be carbon neutral, but it has been found that they also cause real air pollution, which is becoming a problem in cities such as London.

A Nordic country is moving away from biomass fired power generation using wood pellets, as it has been noticed that forests are being destroyed to provide the fuel, and that if one takes the growth rate of trees into account, and the resultant replacement time, using wood as fuel is not really carbon neutral in real time.

There is a further case from Northern Ireland where a subsidy, which would pay people £160 in return for burning £100 of biofuel in biofuel boilers and heaters, was found to result in abuse, as participants were simply running heaters unnecessarily to obtain the subsidy. It is alleged that, in one case, a farmer is in line to receive £1-million over the next 20 years after installing a new heating system for an empty shed.

The human race has survived largely because of the individual’s freedom to control their own lives and to make decisions for themselves. History has shown us that totalitarianism, in whatever form, leads to stagnation, corruption and abuse, and attempts to control or manipulate human behavior generally fail.

So, the leaders of industry should maybe drop the pipe dream of large-scale demand management and end-user behavior manipulation, no matter how subtle, as a means to handle the problems of variable generation, and focus on making the technology a dispatchable resource at an affordable price. Anything else is doomed to failure.

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  • Dirk de Vos

    There is quite a bit with which one can disagree here. Demand side management has been tricky to do in the past not because of a move towards totalitarian control but because of an engineering intervention (micro-processors and transmitters). Time of use measurement was once hard to do, technically, but it is now easy and cheap to implement.

    Once time of use metering is in place, then it is possible, advisable and just to break up the tariff into peak, standard and off-peak times. For large users, like municipalities or mines, this has long been in place and widely accepted. However, the real (marginal cost) of meeting the peak is not fully captured in peak hour pricing (+/- 3 hours/day). The tariffs for standard periods and off-peak periods which can’t use all available capacity carry some of the costs (in the form of idle capacity) of the peak so there is a cross-subsidisation by the standard & off-peak periods of the peak.

    If someone was able, via Demand Side Management, to shift load away from the peak (or even supply load during that time) then, in the absence of having tariffs represent the true cost of meeting the peak, that person would be subsidising others who don’t shift load (especially if there is not enough incentive to do so). This is not efficient nor is it just.

    Let us use an analogous argument. The cheapest milk, bread etc is to be found at supermarkets which are open for business during the day time. If, one late evening, I forget to buy milk and need it in the morning, I have to get into a car (fire up the cold engine) and drive to the petrol station 24 hour convenience store and buy the milk there for, say, 50% more. I can’t complain that I am being nudged by a totalitarian system to buy milk from the supermarket in the day. If a fastfood delivery service can deliver the milk for 100% of the supermarket price and I don’t have to drive, I celebrate what capitalism can do and don’t complain – I just make a mental note to buy sufficient milk at the supermarket next time.

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