Thursday, August 28, 2008

Power to the People

Below is a good article from Greenwire about promising developments in the "smart grid" -- or the ability to make the electrical grid that controls access to power more efficient and flexible. When we provide more information to consumers and tie that information with market incentives for using power more efficiently, we can begin to build an electrical system that meets our needs while avoiding waste. Even more important, we can begin to build up an electrical power system that is capable of taking on renewable energy from disbursed sites and use electric power to fuel our transportation system (think plug-in hybrids or electric cars).

Its good to see a utility moving forward on this. And again, it just points to the fact that solutions only come from working WITH the folks in the industry of making the power -- not just suing them and protesting against their pollution!

UTILITIES: Xcel starts turning Boulder, Colo., into a 'smart grid' Skinner Box (08/22/2008)

Jenny Mandel, Greenwire reporter

Part three of a series.

If you can think of electricity as a chain that connects the power plant to your portable music player, you can grasp the notion of "smart grid."

Broadly, smart grid means applying modern, digital technology to the analog world of electricity infrastructure. But what makes a grid smart is anybody's guess right now.

Xcel Energy, a utility serving eight states -- Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas and Wisconsin -- aims to firm up the definition. With a pilot program called Smart Grid City, the company is installing a network of technologies it says will serve as a "living laboratory" to test smart-grid components.

Some of those components will be put into the hands of the company's customers. Xcel plans to install 15,000 so-called smart meters at homes and businesses in Boulder, Colo., by the end of the year.

Roy Palmer, Xcel's managing director of government and regulatory affairs, said the first group of meters will be relatively simple, though more sophisticated than the familiar counting machines with the row of clock faces. The new digital meters will provide second-to-second data on power use, a vast improvement over the static, cumulative meters they will replace.

And unlike traditional meters, the new ones can be read by machines via built-in communications technology. Xcel is installing an arterial system of Internet technologies, including fiber optics and broadband over power line, that will reach across the entire grid and into individual meters and give engineers unprecedented insight into what is happening on the grid in real time.

"Today, we have a first look into customer meters that we've never had at Xcel Energy," Palmer said.

What advanced meters will not do is offer customers control over how individual appliances or outlets draw power, although models being tested by other utilities have that capability.

For the first stage of Xcel's test, the utility has installed just one bells-and-whistles system. At the University of Colorado chancellor's residence, a mansion that offers abundant opportunity for energy efficiency, Palmer said, Xcel will install an advanced metering system manufactured by GridPoint, a Virginia-based technology company.

Energy Meter
A computer-based "dashboard" lets users of GridPoint's system monitor and control electricity use in the home. Photo courtesy of GridPoint.

The GridPoint setup includes a command center, installed by the main circuit breaker, that takes over operation of key loads. Karl Lewis, GridPoint's executive vice president and chief operating officer, said that in a typical installation the command center would control a home's hot water heater, air conditioning, refrigerator and other energy hogs.

A consumer dashboard is designed to receive signals from the utility about the cost of energy throughout the day.

Energy dashboard

Many grid experts see a switch to time-of-use pricing as an important way to rationalize energy use, allowing utilities to pass along the higher cost of running an extra generation plant to handle peak afternoon load, for example.

Through GridPoint's energy dashboard, a homeowner can assign set-it-and-forget-it settings to reflect how his or her house should perform throughout the day -- maybe adjusting the thermostat a few degrees if the cost of power rises or charging battery-based appliances if it falls.

At the University of Colorado's site, the setup will also include GridPoint's system to support distributed power generation. A large battery will store electricity generated by in-home solar panels, allowing the house to draw on homemade power even when the sun doesn't shine.

The system will also include support for a plug-in electric vehicle, a technology that GridPoint sees as potentially transforming the electric industry.

"We're pretty excited about the car," GridPoint's Lewis said. He noted that General Motors Corp., Nissan Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. have each expressed intentions to put at least 100,000 plug-in cars on the road by the end of 2011.

Charging those vehicles would represent a significant new market for utilities. Those that are prepared could see 15 percent to 30 percent revenue increases, Lewis estimated, while those unprepared could find themselves in a bind as their legal obligation to supply customers with power bumps up against capacity constraints.

"The utilities are scared to death [of the prospect of pluggable cars]," Lewis said. "We like that."

GridPoint sees technologies like its own, which give both the customer and the utility greater control over when cars might charge, as crucial to managing such a transition.

In Boulder, the control system will let the chancellor fuel his plug-in electric car overnight, when electric demand is low, rather than starting to draw power the second a driver arrives at the house and plugs it in.

Telegraph technology in a broadband world

While the university serves as a test bed for the high end of consumer systems, the part of Boulder wired with digital meters will provide valuable data to feed into the wider grid network, Palmer said.

That larger system includes a huge number of sensors and communication nodes that most people might assume already exist.

Today's electric grid is, in many respects, hardly changed from the system that first grew up in the 1920s, according to Phillip Schewe, author of "The Grid: A Journey Through the Heart of Our Electrified World."

The original electric system first entered homes in significant numbers in the early 1900s and by the end of the 1950s reached into virtually every corner of the country, Schewe said.

Most early electricity was powered by coal, Schewe said, and the country saw steady efficiency gains in the amount of power generated per ton of coal between 1900 and 1960, with accompanying cost decreases.

Similarly, utilities learned to increase the voltage of the transmission lines carrying electrons from power plants to city streets, allowing more electricity to be moved more efficiently. Starting at a few hundred volts, companies gradually increased that into the thousands, and today some lines carry power at 500,000 volts or more.

But Schewe describes the 1970s as a "depressing decade" for the grid. Advances stagnated, the first rumblings of deregulation surfaced with new companies that generated power but owned no transmission lines, and a long period of an uncertain investment climate began.

Today, confusion continues to reign over long-distance transmission authority and investments (Greenwire, Aug. 14), and the technologies that undergird the grid remain largely unchanged.

"A lot of companies live or die on their research. But the power company is one that, strangely ... largely does not rely on new technology," Schewe said. "That's partly because the nature of electricity hasn't much changed."

But data collection has changed.

Today, utilities largely rely on customers to call when the power is out and devices fail without warning. But part of the Smart Grid City project, and the larger conception of a comprehensive smart grid, is to bring new communication and data handling technologies into play to give utilities better insight into what is happening on their networks.

In Boulder, Excel will install sensors and automation on the city's five electric substations. By this time next year, the substations will communicate among themselves about power flows, and engineers at an operations center will be able to see what is happening at each. They will also have data on, for example, the current temperature of various devices, which can serve as a warning of imminent failure and allow them to take proactive steps to avoid it.

"We believe the distribution system digitalization will pay for itself," Palmer said. "But because these assets generally aren't linked in a smart grid-enabled fashion, the benefits of horizontal integration across the whole system, from generation to consumption, are best guesses."

Beyond the substations, the company will add similar sensors and Internet-enabled devices at other points in the network. "Everything that can have a sensor, whether switches or transformers or other [equipment], will be monitored and recorded," Palmer said.

The massive new flows of data will require new software and data analysis, of course, making full implementation of the system a challenge much bigger than just plugging it all in.

Closer bond with customers

Xcel's goal in all of this: a combination of financial and environmental benefits.

"If we can presume that our system is much more reliable and has distributed generation backup -- say that we had 10,000 [plug-in cars] plugged in at any one time -- then if we had a power event, if we had a smart grid, then we would instantly be able to access the power from those 10,000 batteries," Palmer said.

A half-hour of backup storage would cut down on inefficient "spinning reserves" that utilities run in case of need and could prevent the need to run an expensive plant, or even build a new one.

In addition to reliability and efficiency savings, though, Palmer sees potential benefits on the environmental side. If customers have real-time data on the balance of "green" and conventional power on the grid, they can make decisions to use more energy when the wind is blowing or the sun is generating juice.

The utility also aims to ensure that any customer who wants to take advantage of a solar subsidy can. Today the city has a program to foster home solar energy systems, but the number of people who use it is small, from a grid reliability standpoint. Palmer wants to know that as more people sign up, problems will not be triggered when a cloud passes over the city and all those power inputs suddenly go dark.

The program focuses on testing many different technologies and working with multiple partners.

"We don't know how good this is," Palmer said, echoing a utility refrain that they understand some elements of the project will fail to perform. "Part of what we want to demonstrate here, and measure, and tinker with a little bit, [is] to see how many megawatts we would save."

In two or three years, Palmer said, the company will have enough data from its living laboratory to know what works and what misses the mark.

'Creative power menu'

The utility has an unusual degree of flexibility in its program, in part because it relies on partners to cost-share their contributions and in part because Xcel has not sought a rate hike to pay for it. Officials hope that as data arrive, they can use Smart Grid City to make arguments with regulators and lawmakers on how such innovation should be paid for down the road.

The company estimates that the whole program will cost a bit more than $100 million, of which Xcel will contribute about $15 million. The list of partners currently includes Accenture, Current Group, Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories, GridPoint and Ventyx.

Schere, the grid historian, believes the time has not yet come for smart grid. Most utilities are too risk-averse, he said, and the federal government has not pushed the issue.

But American consumers have seen the provision of some services -- especially telecommunications -- evolve from a minimal fee-for-service relationship to one in which users can select from a menu of options and pricing plans to suit their individual needs.

Such a "creative power menu" could be on the horizon for electrons, too, Schere said, with choices to make about when and how power is delivered, and with varied pay rates. The whole thing could start with smart metering, he believes, because "the average consumer can wrap his or her mind around it."

If so, the power industry could show some of the "Prius effect" -- named for Toyota's popular hybrid vehicle -- whereby consumers are pushed by mileage feedback from the fuel-efficient cars to drive even more conservatively.

If that virtuous cycle shows itself in the tests, Xcel's gamble will look like a very smart one.

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