Moving toward a SmartGrid
Sunday, May 3, 2009 - 23:19
I mentioned in my blog last week that Xcel Energy was advertizing the success of its new SmartGrid program at Earthfest. As Xcel's SmartGrid homepage proclaims, "the current electric grid ... requires a technological revolution." This pilot program, currently under way right here in Boulder, Colo., attempts to directly connect city customers with their energy provider and with the power plants that feed the utility.
What is SmartGrid?
Xcel Energy, the largest electricity supplier to Colorado and many western states, has chosen Boulder to test the effectiveness of a power grid that integrates customers with their own energy usage and subsequent impact on the environment. SmartGridCity is an effort to digitize the current grid that cannot keep up with consumers' increasing energy demand. To date, over 15,000 new meters have been installed at a cost of $100 million that communicate information directly from utility to Boulder customer. SmartGrid is a part of the city's efforts to meet the standards of the Kyoto Protocol.
What are the benefits of SmartGrid?
• It provides monetary incentives for energy efficiency and conservation among residential and commercial customers.
• It improves the reliability of power delivery with a decreased chance of power outages,
• It allows energy usage to be managed at home or even remotely via the Internet to set new 'smart' timers on current household appliances.
• It enables customers with photovoltaic panels to store energy, or even sell energy back to Xcel,
• Depending on when you choose to operate certain appliances or charge your plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV; see below), SmartGrid allows control over which type of fuel is providing that electricity. For example, coal plants are the baseline power generation for most states. Natural gas and cleaner fuels, like solar or geothermal, are only activated during peak demand; that is, when most consumers are at home and operating appliances, lights and heating/cooling. Peak demand varies seasonally, and is around noon in the summer, and around 6 p.m. in the winter.
• PHEVs can easily be integrated into the SmartGrid system. Normal hybrid cars are not PHEVs. A PHEV is plugged in to the power grid to charge its battery and these cars are not commercially available yet (a few pilot programs are testing PHEVs in California and other areas). The owner of a plug-in hybrid can chose the time of day for charging its battery, depending on power demand and supply.
It seems obvious that it would be best for the entire grid to use most of your personal energy at night, when demand is low. However, this is when coal plants are providing this energy, and thus, more pollution is being created at this time even though the demand on the utility is low. Similarly, to pollute less, a person might operate more appliances when natural gas is providing the electricity, yet this is the time when the utility is facing the most pressure, at peak demand. I see this as a real problem that is not easily understood or solved. Hopefully, as fuel sources become cleaner and more reliable, nuclear or wind power will become the new baseline generator for energy demand.
The present and future
On April 23, Xcel Energy provided an update to the city of Boulder on the progress of SmartGrid since it commenced last year. This update was sponsored by Boulder Tomorrow and given by Ken Floyd, Xcel's vice president of Customer Solutions.
Key components: Distribution and communications are 45 percent complete, with 10,000 more smart meters to be installed. Floyd distinguished between immediately actualized, probable and possible benefits of the program -- from greater efficiency to demand response to green fuels, respectively. Xcel will keep striving to make all of the benefits happen. To view the whole televised update on Boulder's own channel 8, click here.
If you are a city of Boulder resident and would like to know if you qualify for a free smart meter installation, take Xcel's survey to find out now!
Stay smart, Boulder.
Top photo of power lines courtesy of ibnu yusuf/Flickr
Blue photo of power station: melodysparks - Chris/Flickr
Denver's Cherokee Coal Plant (in black and white): kravguy1/Flickr
PV photo: david clucas/Flickr