The Harpies of Our Smart Grid Future

A medieval depiction of a harpy as a bird-woman.

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In the earliest of Greek mythology, a harpy, was often depicted as a beautiful winged maiden. With time, however, they took on a more sinister look and were sent by the gods to snatch (harpazô) people and foul things of value.

Just when events seemed to be going well there were sudden, mysterious disappearances blamed on the Harpyiai.  Zeus sent harpies to torment King Phineus of Thrake as punishment for revealing the secrets of the gods. The Harpies would swoop down on Phineus and snatch away anything he valued or destroy anything they left behind.

What does this have to do with Smart Grid?

The harpyiai of our smart and clean energy future are circling.  You feel the dis-ease, don’t you?

  • Jesse Berst once the champion of smart grid now writes stories doubting we’ll ever see benefits.
  • US DOE works for four years as required by law to designate national interest electric transmission corridors (NIETC) to provide a rational plan for renewable energy integration only to have the harpies of the US Court of Appeals snatch away the authority and invalidate the plan.
  • PG&E deploys more smart meters than the gods could even imagine only to have a few angry customers in Bakersfield show up at a state senator’s feel-good press conference waving their high utility bills and snatching away all the good news.
  • EPRI says build-out costs of smart grid will be about 4X its original estimate or about $500 billion.
  • The sum of global solar energy capacity built to date is about equal to the estimated forced retirement of coal in the Midwest ISO market alone by the latest round of EPA regulations on emissions at coal plants.
  • The President wants to reduce dependence upon fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy in his Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future but the Annual Energy Outlook 2011 published by his own US Department of Energy says coal will be a dominating presence in our energy future through 2035 and oil and natural gas from unconventional sources are the fastest growing segment of American’s energy supply story.

Naming our Smart Grid Harpies

The Greeks gave their harpies names:  AELLO, CELAENO and OCYPETE and all three were daughters of THAUMAS and ELECTRA.   Today we give our harpies other names:

US EPA as AELLO. Aello was sent by the gods to make peace and carry out punishments for crimes.  Our modern harpy equivalent might be the US Environmental Protection Agency. Aello was once a beautiful, winged maiden but later turned into a winged monster with the face of an ugly old woman, with crooked and sharp talons and claws. She also was described as taking people to the Underworld (EPA rulemaking process) and torturing them.  (See Ovid XIII, 710).

NIMBY-ism as Celaeno “the Dark Harpy” the lover of Zephyrus (protector of flowers and plants) and mother of Xanthus and Balius, the supernatural chariot horses of Achilles during the Trojan War. Our modern harpy equivalent is NIMBY-ism.  When Achilles rebuked his horses for permitting Patroclus (think TRANMISSION) to be killed, Xanthos reproved Achilles by saying that a god had slain Patroclus and that a god would soon kill him too. Then the mightiest of the Greeks who fought in the Trojan War, and hero of Homer’s Iliad was wounded in the heel and died. (See Virgil III, 211, 245).  And without transmission neither the smart grid nor the full potential of renewable energy to reduce the market share of coal is possible—both risking the same fate as Achilles.

Smart Meter Harpy plays Ocypete: “The Swiftwing”. The fastest of the harpy sisters– the spirits of sudden, sharp gusts of wind is now our harpy of the smart grid. And with a rush reminiscent of Ocypete smart meter deployment has swept the nation driven caused by the sharp gust of stimulus money and the ‘spirits’ of state regulators and politicians eager for the largesse and credit for a politically correct cause célèbre.  But Ocypete is a fickle harpy and just when the smart meter deployment is reaching saturation she appears to snatch the customer benefits leaving all those smart meters as stranded costs for utilities that could not get regulators to impose dynamic pricing to seduce or torment customers to change their wasteful ways nor build the transmission to bring sufficient renewable energy to market to meet expected demand.  And without the demand for smart meter-enabled services the harpies snatched away the scalable growth potential for the wider smart grid as the venture capital went elsewhere.

Our Achilles Heel is the sum of the mischief of our harpies snatching away our reliable, baseload generation from coal with new regulations and massive doubt and starving our nuclear baseload with indifference and little reassurance of safety after Fukushima-dai-ichi before delivering the clean renewable energy in sufficient scale to make up the difference or the scalable North American-wide smart grid-enabled services market to attract the investment and growth to finish the smart grid roll-out.  This leaves us to our own devices.

The Good News is we see ourselves as the Argonauts , the Boread Brothers, chasing away the harpies as America discovered horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing and unleashed a new cleaner energy future from natural gas to bridge the gap between our reliable baseload past and our uncertain renewable future.

We do not yet know what the gods have in store for our energy future, but we take comfort by fighting back against the harpyiai in our midst.