Smart Grid to Rock Boulder

Gristmill: The Environmental News Blog
By Patrick Mazza
March 18, 2008

City selected for largest U.S. smart grid project

When Xcel Energy announced a few days ago that it had selected Boulder,
Colo. as "the nation's first fully integrated Smart Grid City," it
represented a vitally important step toward creating a low-carbon energy network.

Photo: Aidan M. GreyXcel previously announced its intention to stage the
largest and most comprehensive deployment of smart grid technologies in
the U.S. ever, and now it says it has targeted Boulder for a several-year
effort that will cost up to $100 million. The aim at a comprehensive
system is precisely what makes this a breakthrough.

Smart grid technologies exhibit the classic network effect. Deployed
individually, some can still have valuable benefits, as the personal
computer did before the internet. To maximize benefits, however, they must
be put together. Because this requires an overall systems transformation,
and because such changes generally pose all sorts of chicken-and-egg
challenges, the smart grid has been slow to catch on in the U.S. (France
and Italy, who have more centrally managed electrical systems, have
managed to advance farther.)

Xcel's effort deploy smart grid technologies throughout Boulder, a city of
100,000, promises to be a seminal demonstration of what the smart grid can
do, documenting the benefits it can bring for customers and utilities.
Here is a graphic depiction [PDF]. Xcel has pulled together an impressive
consortium to develop Smart Grid City including Accenture, Current Group,
Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories, and Ventyx.

In the notoriously innovation-averse electrical utility industry, a
demonstration of success on a large scale is just what it could take to
bust the smart grid loose. Industry executives are not the only ones who
must be convinced. Xcel views Boulder as a pilot for smart grid deployment
across its eight-state territory, and they will employ results to persuade
utility regulators to allow investments in new technologies. Skeptical
utility commissions have proven a significant obstacle in the past.

Unleashing the smart grid is about an energy revolution as profound as the
information technology revolution of the last 30 years. Really, it is
about the information revolution coming to energy -- the smart grid adds a
backbone of digital sensing, communications, and control. The technologies
that enable this are diverse and complex, from smart meters and controls
allowing buildings to adjust their power demand in response to the grid,
to smart substations improving power regulation, to sensors providing
granular information on grid operations.

This digital backbone will give the grid crucial capabilities it does not
have today that are vital to reduce carbon emissions:

To integrate an "internet" of smaller-scale, distributed energy
resources such as solar panels, wind turbines, and combined heat and
power units.

To charge fleets of plug-in vehicles in ways that do not overstress
grids and which create energy storage networks from parked plug-ins.
To control power usage in order to reduce peak demands, thus eliminating
typically dirty "peaker" plants plus power lines.

To regulate power flow through the grid in ways that reduce the 5 to 10
percent line losses that characterize most power grids.

My only caveat at this point is the number of qualifiers in the press
release -- technologies "could" be deployed; "up to" $100 million could be
spent. It will be important to track follow-through on the part of Xcel
and its consortium of partners. But there is no doubt that this is a
significant announcement with huge potential implications for general
transformation of the power grid into a low-carbon energy network.


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