Live Energy Monitor Helps Plan Power-Hungry Appliance Use

There are a lot of good reasons to have a better understanding of one’s household power use, and that is especially true for those that do their own solar power collection. For example, [Frederick] determined that it would be more efficient to use large appliances (like a dishwasher or washing machine) when there was excess solar power available, but the challenge was in accessing the right data in a convenient way. His Raspberry Pi-based live energy monitor was the solution, because it uses an LED matrix to display live energy data that can be consulted at a glance.

Interestingly, this project isn’t about hacking the power meter. What this project is really about is conveniently accessing that data when and where it is best needed. [Frederick] has a digital power and gas meter with the ability to accept a small wireless dongle. That dongle allows a mobile phone app to monitor power usage, including whether power is being taken from or exported to the grid.

Since [Frederick] didn’t want to have to constantly consult his mobile phone, a Raspberry Pi using a Pimoroni Unicorn HAT HD acts as a glanceable display. His Python script polls the power meter directly over WiFi, then creates a live display of power usage: one LED for every 250 W of power, with the top half of the display being power used, and the bottom half representing power exported to the grid. Now the decision of when to turn on which appliances for maximum efficiency is much easier, not by automating the appliances themselves, but simply by displaying data where it needs to be seen. (This kind of thing, incidentally, is exactly the idea behind the Rethink Displays challenge of the 2021 Hackaday Prize.)

As for those of us without a digital power meter that makes it easy for residents to access power data? It turns out there is no reason a power meter’s wireless service interface can’t be sniffed with RTL-SDR.

Black Starts: How The Grid Gets Restarted

Gripped as we are at the time of this writing by a historic heatwave, it’s hard for those of us in the western United States to picture a time when cold and ice reigned across the land. But really, it was only about four months back that another bit of freakish weather was visited across most of the country, including places ill-equipped to deal with the consequences. The now-fabled “February Freeze” left millions, mostly in Texas, scrabbling about in the dark and cold as a series of cascading engineering failures took apart their electrical grid, piece by piece, county by county.

The event has been much discussed and dissected, as an event with such far-reaching impact should be. Like much discussion these days, precious little of it is either informed or civil, and that’s not good news for those seeking to understand what happened and how to prevent it from happening again, or at least to mitigate the effects somewhat. Part of that is understandable, given the life-disrupting and often life-threatening situations the disaster forced people to suddenly face. It’s also difficult for people to discuss an event so widespread in its scope and impact — there’s just too much for anyone to wrap their head around.

To make the present discussion a little easier, we’ll be focusing on one aspect of the February grid crash that’s often bandied about but rarely explained: that the Texas grid was mere minutes away from collapsing completely, and that it would have taken weeks or months to restore had it been able to slip away. Is that really possible? Can the power grid just “go away” completely and suddenly? The answer, sadly, is yes, but thankfully a lot of thought has been put into not only preventing it from happening but also how to restart everything if it does happen, by performing what’s known as a “Black Start.”

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South Australia Vs. Too Much Home Solar

Once upon a time, the consensus was that renewable energy was too expensive and in too sparse supply to be a viable power source to run our proud, electrified societies on. Since then, prices of solar panels have tanked, becoming more efficient along the way, and homeowners have been installing them on their rooftops in droves.

Where once it was thought we’d never have enough solar energy, in some cities, it’s becoming all too much. In South Australia, where solar output can be huge on a sunny day, electricity authorities are facing problems with grid stability, and are taking measures to limit solar output to the grid.

Isn’t More Usually Better?

The problem faced by South Australian utilities is one of how to properly control an electrical grid with many thousands of distributed power sources. Typically, in conventional modern power grids, voltage and frequency is controlled within set limits by carefully matching the supply from major power plants with the demand from users. Fast-response plants can be brought online to meet shortfalls, and switched off when demand drops, and everything hums along nicely.

Unfortunately, solar power isn’t so easy to throttle, and even less so when it’s coming from thousands of separate households each with their own rooftop install and an inverter to feed back into the grid. This has led to authorities contemplating measures such as charging homeowners to export energy to the grid in peak periods in an effort to slow the huge uptake of home solar systems. Export limits have also been proposed for suburbs with the highest concentration of home solar, as substations in certain residential areas struggle to cope under the huge inflows of energy. Continue reading “South Australia Vs. Too Much Home Solar”

Inside Smart Meters Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, April 14 at noon Pacific for the Inside Smart Meters Hack Chat with [Hash]!

That electrical meter on the side of your house might not look like it, but it’s pretty packed with technology. What was once a simple electromechanical device that a human would have to read in person is now a node on a far-flung network. Not only does your meter total up the amount of electricity you use, but it also talks to other meters in the neighborhood, sending data skipping across town to routers that you might never have noticed as it makes its way back to the utility. And the smartest of smart meters not only know how much electricity you’re using, but they can also tease information about which appliances are being used simply by monitoring patterns of usage.

While all this sounds great for utility companies, what does it mean for the customers? What are the implications of having a network of smart meters all talking to each other wirelessly? Are these devices vulnerable to attack? Have they been engineered to be as difficult to exploit as something should be when it’s designed to be in service for 15 years or more?

These questions and more burn within [Hash], a hardware hacker and security researcher who runs the RECESSIM reverse-engineering wiki. He’s been inside a smart meter or two and has shared a lot of what he has learned on the wiki and with some in-depth YouTube videos. He’ll stop by the Hack Chat to discuss what he’s learned about the internals of smart meters, how they work, and where they may be vulnerable to attack.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, April 14 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have you tied up, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.
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Increasing The Resolution Of The Electrical Grid

As a society in the USA and other parts of the world, we don’t give much thought to the twisting vines of civilization that entangle our skies and snake beneath our streets. The humming electrical lines on long poles that string our nations together are simply just there. Ever-present and immutable. We expect to flick the switch and power to come on. We only notice the electrical grid when something goes wrong and there is a seemingly myriad number of ways for things to go wrong. Lighting strikes, trees falling on lines, fires, or even too many people trying to crank on the A/C can all cause rolling blackouts. Or as we found out this month, cold weather can take down generation systems that have not been weatherized.

We often hear the electrical grid described as aging and strained. As we look to the future and at the ever-growing pressure on the infrastructure we take for granted, what does the future of the electrical grid look like? Can we move past blackouts and high voltage lines that criss-cross the country?

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What’s The Deal With Rolling Blackouts In California’s Power Grid?

A heat wave spreading across a large portion of the west coast of the United States is not surprising for this time of year, but the frequency and severity of these heat waves have been getting worse in recent years as the side effects from climate change become more obvious. In response to this, the grid operators in California have instituted limited rolling blackouts as electricity demand ramps up.

This isn’t California’s first run-in with elective blackouts, either. The electrical grid in California is particularly prone to issues like this, both from engineering issues and from other less obvious problems as well.

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Microbatteries On The Grid

Not everybody has $6500 to toss into a Tesla Powerwall (and that’s a low estimate), but if you want the benefits of battery storage for your house, [Matt]’s modular “microbattery” storage system might be right up your alley. With a build-as-you-go model, virtually any battery can be placed on the grid in order to start storing power from a small solar installation or other power source.

The system works how any other battery installation would work. When demand is high, a series of microinverters turn on and deliver power to the grid. When demand is low, the batteries get charged. The major difference between this setup and a consumer-grade system is that this system is highly modular and each module is networked together to improve the efficiency of the overall system. Its all tied together with a Raspberry Pi that manages the entire setup.

While all of the software is available to set this up, it should go without saying that working with mains power is dangerous, besides the fact that you’ll need inverters capable of matching phase angle with the grid, a meter that handles reverse power flow, a power company that is willing to take the power, and a number of building code statutes to appease. If you don’t have all that together, you might want to go off-grid instead.