It’s hard to over-emphasize how antiquated much of the electricity grid is. Electricity companies typically have no idea when parts of the network go down, when customers are without power, or how much electricity they are using. They have to wait for customers to report a fault, and they have to send out expensive staff to read meters. Customers don’t really know what they are paying for, and they have little sense that the real price is very different on a hot summer day than it is on a mild autumn one.
Slowly, though, the grid is getting smarter: sensors are being added to substations, transformers, and switches along the network; two-way communications equipment is being installed; and, of course, customers are starting to receive smart meters, which provide more information about their energy use, and give electricity companies more insight on a part-hour basis. Much of the investment is coming from the Obama Administration’s stimulus, which has channeled $3.4 billion into 100 projects around the country.
Chattanooga, Tennessee, is a good example of a city that’s benefiting. Since receiving $111.5 million from the government—roughly half the overall project cost—the publicly-owned Electric Power Board (EPB) has invested heavily in new sensor equipment, and it is in the mid-stages of rolling out smart meters to all 170,000 residents. EPB claims the sensors are drastically reducing outages, while the meters will allow customers to take advantage of demand-sensitive pricing. The city itself reckons the grid, which comes on top of a new super-fast fiber optic network, is helping attract new business investment (Amazon and Volkswagen are recent arrivals), keeping the local economy buoyant.
EPB recently finished installing 1,170 "Intellirupters", which re-route power when there’s a fault, and helps the grid "heal itself" rather than needing human intervention. CEO Harold DePriest says if the equipment had been place during last year’s tornado season, 70,000 of the 130,000 customers who lost power would have kept it. He says the kit will reduce down-time by 40%, saving the community an estimated $40 million a year.
DePriest says the real-step change is in the quality of information that EPB will enjoy. From having a limited idea of what was happening in the network, it will now be able to run all sorts of analysis on performance and usage patterns. "It’s about the system being smarter, but it’s really about the decision-making being smarter," he says. That should help meet spikes in demand, allow engineers to fix problems proactively, and improve reliability and efficiency.
Patricia Hoffman, assistant secretary for the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability at the Department of Energy, says, in discussing smart grids, people have generally paid too much attention to smart meters, when many of the easiest-to-achieve benefits are in upgrading the distribution system. Focusing on the meat of the grid is simpler, and less contentious, she says.
John Estey, CEO of S&C, the company behind the Intellirupter, says the basic quality of many early smart meters—some don’t even allow two-way communication—may have put people off the idea of smart grids, despite the potential outside the home. "I’m fearful that these people [early adopters] are going to give the smart grid a bad name," he says. He’s also skeptical that people are really going to moderate their energy consumption based on minute price signals. Most people haven’t the time, he says, or the inclination to save what could be just a few cents.
But Hoffman believes the advantages of smart meters will be realized later, once customers can access more, and better, information about energy use and prices. She points to the DOE’s Green Button program, which aims to standardize smart meter data, and encourage developers to design energy usage applications.
The long-term effect, she hopes, will be to cut energy waste, and improve efficiency. "We think when you give people the information in real-time, it becomes useful. That’s what people are looking for. If you give them the information after the fact, what good is it then?"
As for Chattanooga, EPB plans to finish rolling out the smart meters by the end of this year, allowing customers to view their usage information on a website and on a TV application. DePriest is confident people will take to the service, though EPB may need to be flexible. "It’s different in a small town. When you’re walking down the street, people will come up to you and tell you if something’s not right. But it also means that it’s easier to experiment with something like this."