Why, What a Smart Grid You Have!

Photo credit: Beverly Pete

On the blustery December morning I had set aside to preview the new high-tech, digitally enhanced smart grid coming soon to Boulder, Colorado, the gusting 50-mile-per-hour Chinook winds that had been rattling my home city for more than a week briefly knocked out the power. Thinking that a blackout might make it tough to view the grid in action, I called Val Peterson, wife of G. P. "Bud" Peterson, chancellor of the University of Colorado at Boulder, whose home is the showcase residence for Xcel Energy's SmartGridCity project. Peterson was unfazed: a bank of batteries stores electricity produced by rooftop solar panels and can power parts of the house for nearly two days. "Come on over," she said cheerfully.

The chancellor's residence at the University of Colorado has 7,000 square feet of living space and is faced with pink stucco and watched over by a giant bronze statue of a buffalo. An unlikely poster child for green design, the house is now tricked out with a six-kilowatt photovoltaic system on two roofs, four thermostats controlled via a Web portal, that lithium-ion battery backup unit, and a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) Ford Escape. Xcel employees monitor the house and the car continuously. They know, for instance, when the Petersons are hosting a party (power use soars) and when Val is driving in the left lane (the car's antenna transmits 30 pieces of data per second).

Peterson jokes that she and her husband have "donated our bodies to science" by residing in Xcel's living laboratory, but in fact most of Boulder's 100,000-odd residents will soon become guinea pigs for the rest of the country. Xcel's SmartGridCity project is a $100 million effort to turn a town long mocked for its eco-fanaticism into a prototype for America's electricity future: a world of distributed power generation, electric cars, "energy management portals," and diminished carbon emissions. The Petersons have already managed to reduce their electricity use by about a third since the project began last spring, and that's without any financial incentive (the university pays the Petersons' utility bill).

Smart grid is one of those catchall terms that energy experts can split hairs over for hours. Essentially, it refers to a revamped electricity network that allows electrons—and information—to flow both ways. Wonkiness aside, what's cool about the smart grid is not the grid itself but what it could ultimately make possible: using solar panels and electric cars as mini-power plants, choosing your power's price and carbon emissions based on a digital readout on your wall, setting your dishwasher to run only when wind turbines are spinning. Turning that Jetsons-style scenario into reality involves every aspect of the delivery and consumption of electricity as we know it: the meters and appliances in your home, the transmission lines and transformers that shuttle electrons to your doorstep, and even the power plants themselves, whether dirty old coal plants or rooftop solar panels. Smart grids will give consumers more say in their power purchasing and give utilities access to basic information that, incredibly, they don't have today—such as whether your household power is on or off, which they currently determine by sending a man in a truck to check.

Boulder's smart grid will soon allow me to access Xcel's computer network via a Web-based portal called an energy dashboard. To picture how I might use such a thing, imagine that I'm at home with a PHEV (pronounced "pee-hev") charging in my driveway. It's 102 degrees outside, and Xcel is buying electricity from a coal-fired power plant at 25 cents per kilowatt hour to meet the demand from Boulder's air conditioners and freezers. I might decide to switch off my air conditioner, boot up my laptop, log in to my energy dashboard, sell my parked car's supply of electricity to Xcel for, say, 22 cents per kilowatt-hour, and then spend the afternoon tubing in Boulder Creek—all the while knowing I'm reducing my utility bill by selling my unused electricity when demand is highest.

I don't own a PHEV, nor does anyone I know (the Petersons don't own theirs; the university does), so my heat wave power-selling strategy is only a fantasy—for now. Still, in just a few months I should have access to the energy management portal, which will enable me to watch my power consumption in real time. That sounds less than riveting, but you'd be surprised by the results.

A year-long study conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory found that consumers who had access to information on their power use and pricing saved an average of 10 percent on their electricity bills by making better decisions about when to use power. This is the smart grid's promise. And while it's difficult to predict its ultimate contribution to the nation's energy efficiency—because no such grids exist yet and because there are so many variables—a 2008 report by the Electric Power Research Institute found that by 2030, the implementation of smart-grid technology could reduce the country's energy consumption by as much as 4.3 percent.

Val Peterson can now talk at length about kilowatts and inverters, but before last summer she had never given much thought to her power consumption. She's a former Spanish teacher who prefers quilting and sewing her own clothes to fiddling with high-tech gadgetry. On the day I visited she was assembling an elaborate quilt using photos of the university's campus printed on fabric; a sewing machine and stacks of sunny yellow and orange material lay at one end of her massive dining room table (the chancellor's job includes a grueling entertaining schedule). We sat down at the other end in front of her laptop.

As she pulled up her control screen, I saw the house's energy-eating lights, TVs, refrigerators, and cordless phones translated into the simple language of pie charts and bar graphs. Updated every 15 minutes, the dashboard slices information in dozens of different ways: live household consumption and production; stored backup power; carbon-emission reductions translated into gallons of gasoline and acres of trees saved a year (Peterson's favorite). [page-break]

The dashboard also allows Peterson to program her home's thermostats, adjusting the temperature by room, time of day, and season. As the temperature drops and football season ramps up, she frets about how much heat is lost when guests at her husband's game-day luncheons traipse back and forth between house and patio. She shakes her head at the thought of it. "Now when I see a light switch that's on, I also see a coal-fired power plant," she says. "I try to be a good citizen and turn it off."

In the short term, access to basic data about energy consumption could be the most important feature for consumers. Today's customers have no idea when the grid is overloaded or when power costs the most to produce. "The information we send customers now"—a utility bill—"is a once-a-month backward look," says Roy Palmer, the Xcel executive in charge of SmartGridCity.

Until I visited the Petersons' house, my only brush with the smart grid had been noticing giant coils of fiber-optic cable spring up on streets around town and watching the utility guy install a shiny new two-way electric meter in my backyard. Even after we're all wired up, it could be a few years before we see the sort of flexible energy pricing that would allow me to choose when to buy my power and where to buy it from.

The reality is that no matter how smart our grids get, we need smart policies to see that their potential is fulfilled. The grid can just as easily conduct power from dirty coal plants as power from your neighbor's solar array. "Smart grids can bring us into a future full of renewable energy and plug-in hybrids," says Cameron Brooks, president of Tolerable Planet Enterprises, a clean-energy consulting firm. "But that depends on the policies and regulations that guide its use." [page-break]

Utilities across the country are starting to implement smart-grid upgrades—beginning, in most cases, by installing two-way meters. In the meantime, smaller-scale devices and networking systems can help us monitor power consumption and make more informed decisions about electricity use.

EnergyHub, a New York City-based company founded by a team of robotics and aerospace engineers, will soon sell its own energy dashboard, which looks and feels like a handheld geographic positioning device, says Seth Frader-Thompson, the company's CEO. The unit connects wirelessly to smart meters and responds to data the utility sends out. For instance, if the grid is stressed, the hub could turn down your air conditioner.

Even in the absence of a smart meter, the EnergyHub dashboard can help reduce your power consumption by operating in conjunction with smart power strips that work just like standard surge protectors. Each device plugged into the strip—computer, refrigerator, HDTV—can be individually monitored and remotely controlled; you can see how much you're spending to power it and decide, perhaps, to cut off its standby load when you're not at home. One EnergyHub tester found he was spending $250 a year to leave the TV on all day for his dog.

In the smart-grid future, that dog owner could do better for his pet and the planet by logging on to his energy dashboard from work, turning the dishwasher on while the sun is shining and his solar panels are cranking, and saving enough money to buy his dog some new toys.


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