What’s a “Smart Grid” and Why’s It Coming to Boulder?

Boulder Carbon Tax Tracker
March 18, 2008

Last week Xcel Energy announced that Boulder is about to become the
nation’s first “Smart Grid” city. What could this mean for energy
consumption and greenhouse gas emission programs in Boulder — and will it
take effect in time to help the city meet its commitment to the Kyoto
Protocol goals, due in 2012?

Smart Grid is Xcel’s program to try to make the electric power grid more
efficient and resilient through the use of information technology.

According to the utility’s Smart Grid strategy and vision, “Our long-term
smart grid concept imagines an evolved energy grid with layers of
functional, sophisticated intelligence built in intelligence that will
foster communication and integration among the grid’s various components
and processes. This would enable the grid to better monitor, manage, and
even balance itself.”

…Not a bad idea. In recent years, problems with how the national and
regional power grids operate have caused or exacerbated major blackouts.
Locally, this could mean that Boulderites might be able to access richer
information about their information use, so they can make smarter
decisions about when and how to use power…

According to Xcel, Smart Grid “will provide customers with a portfolio of
smart grid technologies designed to provide environmental, financial and
operational benefits.” (Read more about local angles in Ryan Morgan’s Mar.
12 Daily Camera story.)

In general, human beings act in response to signals. Right now, the only
real “signal” most of us get about our energy usage is our monthly utility
bill — which is hard to read and doesn’t tell you much about the effect of
specific actions on specific days or times on your overall bill or
environmental impact.

Getting better and more timely information to energy consumers is a proven
way to get them to act to save energy or reduce peak demand on the grid.
In California, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. has been successfully piloting a
very simple signal — the energy orb,” which changes color to signal when
to start reducing power use — to increase business compliance with its
load-management programs.

Hey, I’d like to have an energy orb for my house here in Boulder! Xcel,
are you planning anything simple like that? Complex data streams are only
useful if you have the mental bandwidth to interpret them. An
energy-orb-like signal device plus a simple protocal of energy-saving
steps to take when the color changes might be a useful first step for all
kinds of utility customers.

Of course, the main point of Smart Grid is to optimize the power grid —
which means that most of the work probably will happen on the utility side
of things, invisible to customers (except perhaps in terms of improved
electric reliability). It’s important to remember that the power grid is
much more than Xcel or any utility — it’s about how utilities, power
wholesalers, and energy regulators work together as a system. But of
course, any utility is welcome to clean up its own act. Still, I’m glad to
see that several national companies are working with Xcel on this project.

What’s Going to Happen in Boulder?

According to Xcel, here’s why our city was selected for this pilot project:

“In addition to its geographic concentration, ideal size and access to all
grid components, Boulder was selected as the Smart Grid City because it is
home to the University of Colorado and several federal institutions,
including the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which
already is involved in smart grid efforts for the federal government.”

And here’s what this could mean to Boulderites:

“A Smart Grid City could feature a number of infrastructure upgrades and
customer offerings — for the first time fully integrated through the
partnership’s efforts in Boulder — including:

“Transformation of existing metering infrastructure to a robust, dynamic
electric system communications network, providing real-time, high-speed,
two-way communication throughout the distribution grid;

“Conversion of substations to “smart” substations capable of remote
monitoring, near real-time data and optimized performance;

“Installation of programmable in-home control devices and the necessary
systems to fully automate home energy use (at the customer’s
invitation); and

…Distributed generation technologies such as plug-in hybrid electric
vehicles with vehicle-to-grid technology; battery systems; wind
turbines; and solar panels.

“The potential benefits of the Smart Grid City include operational
savings, customer-choice energy management, better grid reliability,
greater energy efficiency and conservation options, increased use of
renewable energy sources, and support for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles
and intelligent-home appliances.”

When Will This Happen?

Surprisingly soon, in utility terms. According to Xcel, “The first phase
of Smart Grid City is expected to be in place by as early as August 2008,
with implementation throughout the city continuing through 2009. Beginning
in 2009, the consortium also expects to begin an initial assessment of the technologies.”

More immediately, however, it seems that Boulder’s selection as Xcel’s
first Smart Grid city is the last nail in the coffin of Boulder’s efforts
to municipalize its electric power system — which never quite got off the
ground. More from today’s Daily Camera on this.

Boulder Carbon Tax Tracker will be looking into the potential
environmental impact of Smart Grid, and how this might related to the
city’s emission-reduction goals.


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