You Tell Us: Who's Got the Power?

Image: Xcel Energy

Imagine being able to take an instant-by-instant look at your energy usage, set a monthly energy budget and get an alert when you get close to that figure, remotely shut off appliances like air conditioners during times of peak energy demand, or sell the excess energy generated by your solar panels or wind turbine back to the power company. And if you plan to purchase a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle to avoid the pain at the pump, you could use the car’s battery pack to deliver power back to the grid when demand is high or to run your house in the event of a blackout. These were among the selling points that got residents of Boulder, Colo., enthused about their city becoming the test bed for the coordinated introduction of a group of technologies that will make Boulder the first city in the United States to be powered by a so-called smart grid when the two-year project is completed in December 2009.

The effort is the brainchild of Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy, an energy utility whose service territory covers eight midwestern U.S. states. What’s in it for Xcel? In the wake of the 2003 blackout that left a large swath of the United States and Canada in the dark, there was a renewed call for improvement in the outdated, poorly configured patchwork that is the U.S. power grid. Electric utilities and power pools have been under pressure to improve the networks’ infrastructure, including long-distance transmission lines and the control systems at substations. Advances in the form of new materials for cables, sensors and software designed to detect and even predict faults, and the ability to incorporate inputs from residential solar and wind generation are gradually being installed.

By packaging these upgrades as a smart grid, Xcel can rapidly roll out new technologies and test them in Boulder, which, not coincidentally, is also the site of a U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology laboratory. The NIST lab was already working on smart-grid technology and is now part of the Smart Grid Consortium led by Xcel. On its own Web site, http://smartgridcity.exelenergy.com, the company says it ”anticipates funding only a portion of the project, and plans to leverage other sources including government grants for the remainder of what could be up to a $100 million effort.” In addition to improved grid reliability and energy efficiency, the improvements could yield operational savings from being able to do such things as remotely check a smart meter in a customer’s home and hold a real-time two-way conversation with the customer about what he or she is experiencing without having to make an in-person service call.

Why did Boulder go for it? The city is eager to find a way to meet its own air pollution mandate, which requires it to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels. That would require a 24 percent reduction from today’s emission levels. Xcel is convinced that giving Boulder residents the ability to monitor their energy usage and to tell when demand is perilously close to generating capacity will wake them up to how much they use needlessly. The company predicts that residents’ habits will change enough to achieve the emission-reduction goal almost immediately. But how can Xcel be so sure that on a hot summer day, Customer A will voluntarily turn off his air conditioner when he knows that few others are cutting back because he has a readout showing a razor-thin margin between demand and capacity? And if Xcel shuts power to certain customers’ appliances at its discretion, how long will it be before that becomes a heated political issue?

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