Special Report: The Smart Grid
Probably the iconic image of what a smarter grid will mean is the smart meter. Companies and governments around the world are committing billions of dollars to the installation of systems that will tell both users and distributors how much electricity is being used at every consumption point, in real time. The most recent project is in Miami, where General Electric and Cisco, among others, are supplying meters, smarter thermostats and appliances, and networking technology for up to a million homes. But the project that’s the furthest along and has the highest ambitions—in terms of influence on regulators and equipment suppliers—is Xcel Energy’s SmartGridCity, in Boulder, Colo. IEEE Spectrum takes a look to see how homeowners might use their networked dashboards—or not!—to monitor and regulate their electricity usage.
Will Boulderites remember to tell their sprinkler system to stop watering their lawn when they hear while trekking in the Himalayas that the Southwest drought is getting worse than ever? And if they do, will this make potential makers and buyers of smart-grid equipment sit up and take notice all over the world? If Xcel doesn’t find the answers, then perhaps the Florida Power & Light Company will.
The Miami and Boulder projects are all about smart distribution. But the U.S. stimulus bill has allocated tens of billions of dollars for smart and renewables-friendly transmission. With an eye on that, Spectrum closely examines some cases in which wind entrepreneurs have had trouble getting prospective projects linked into the grid. In some cases, working with regulators, people getting into the green business have found ways to stretch and massage rules to get the turbines turning. But increasingly, regulators are finding it necessary to radically reform rules and devise entirely new frameworks to accommodate not just wind but every conceivable kind of renewables project.
If anyone knows the fatal flaws of transmission planning for renewables in the United States, it’s Dariush Shirmohammadi, reports Spectrum’s contributing editor Susan Arterian-Chang. In early 2006, as director of transmission for the southern region of California’s Independent System Operator, Shirmohammadi was given the task of producing a transmission service plan for moving wind power from rural Tehachapi—a mountain pass in Southern California between Bakersfield and the Mohave Desert—to consumers in greater Los Angeles.
Starting in the mid-1990s, the California Public Utilities Commission had patched together a succession of loosely organized working committees and task forces to produce plans to build transmission for renewables in Tehachapi. But more than a decade later, none of those plans had come to fruition. The reason, according to Shirmohammadi, gets to the heart of what’s wrong with transmission planning across the United States and why so little new transmission has been built for the last 30 years. “No one party can say, ‘Go ahead and build a line,’ ” he maintains, “but any one party can kill a transmission project.”
For a briefing on smart grid technology, watch IEEE TV's A Smart Grid for Intelligent Energy Use video.