Why Smart Appliances May Result in a Stupid Grid: Examining the Layers of the Sociotechnical Systems

This article discusses the unexpected consequences of idealistic conceptions about the modernization of power grids. It focuses on demand?response policies based on automatic decisions made by smart home appliances. Following the usual approach, individual appliances sense a universal signal (i.e., a grid frequency or price) that reflects the system state. Such information is the basis of device decision making. While each device, on its own, has a negligible impact, together their aggregate effect is expected to improve system efficiency; this is the demand? response goal. The smartness of such an ideal system, one composed of isolated decision-making appliances that are also simultaneously connected within the same physical grid, may worsen system stability. This undesirable outcome results from the synchronization of the devices? reactions when subjected to the same signal. We argue that this is a predictable effect of (implicit) methodological choices. Additionally, we employ a different approach that recognizes the electrical system as constituted by physical, informational, and regulatory (networked and structured) layers that are numerous and cannot be reduced to only one or two; the system needs to be regarded as an organic whole so that proper management tools can be designed. In this article, two examples are provided to illustrate the strength of this modeling.