Smart grid offers energy savingsby Stephanie Hemphill, Minnesota Public Radio
Our electricity system is about to get smarter. Utilities are installing new technologies that can help consumers save energy and prevent blackouts. Xcel Energy is installing an extensive smart grid system in Boulder, Colo. that may lead to more widespread use of the technology.
St. Paul, Minn. — Right now, your local electric company probably doesn't even know when there's a power outage unless a customer calls to report it.
But there are new technologies out there that can automatically prevent, and even fix, outages. Other equipment can help people save money by using less energy when the price is high.
These "smart grid" systems will make it easier for utilities to add new, renewable sources of energy into the electrical grid.
In spite of the amazing technological advances of the last few decades, the electric grid hasn't changed significantly since it was designed by contemporaries of the man who invented the light bulb, Thomas Edison.
But that's all changing.
Just ask Val and Bud Peterson, who are living the future at their home in Boulder, Colo. It sits in the shadow of the Flatiron Mountains, a place of climate extremes not all that different from Minnesota.
Bud Peterson is chancellor of the University of Colorado. The university is collaborating with Xcel Energy to study new technologies that save and produce energy. Some of them are being installed in homes throughout Boulder -- including the Petersons'. One gadget allows the Petersons to program their thermostats from anywhere in the world.
"If I land at Denver International Airport, it's a 45-minute drive home," Val Peterson said. "We have a satellite card in my husband's computer. And he could just jump on the computer, and our house could be taken out of vacation mode, and it could be nice and toasty warm in the winter by the time we drove home."
On the roof, there are solar panels making electricity that the Petersons can sell back to the power company. The panels also charge a battery, which is ready to kick in if there's a power outage at the house.
Another part of the experiment is the Petersons' car. It's a plug-in electric vehicle that gets 54 miles per gallon in town, and more than 100 miles on the highway.
Val Peterson can program her system so the car's battery is only recharged on renewable energy. Or, if her car battery has extra power, she can plug it in and sell power back to the grid during peak times, when everyone else is turning on lights and using appliances.
Val Peterson gave us a tour of the components of her smart house, over the phone. When we spoke with her, she was standing in front of her computer, which she calls her dashboard. It gives her an up-to-the-minute readout, and a cumulative tally of her energy use and its impact on the environment.
It also gives her a pat on the back for using less energy. It tells her that in the last 30 days her energy saving has avoided 718 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions.
"Our savings with this Xcel Energy smart grid house was equal to conserving 37 gallons of gasoline, or removing 23 cars off of the road for a day," Peterson said proudly.
The Petersons are not only using less energy; they're contributing energy to the grid. Multiply that across all a utility's customers, and it can significantly reduce how much electricity the company needs to produce.
"When they tell me how many coal-fired plants I kept from being started up or even constructed, it just really makes me happy," Val Peterson said. "It makes me mindful that we're making a difference. This is changing my behavior."
That's the goal of the smart grid experiment in Boulder, according to Xcel Energy spokesman Tom Henley.
"That our customers will ultimately take that knowledge and turn it into action, and reduce their power usage, and ultimately be able to get to that goal of not potentially having to build new power plants," Henley said.
Henley said the new technologies are expected to reduce Xcel's power needs in the region by 7 percent.
Smart grids can also include remote sensing equipment and automated switches on the power lines themselves. That's supposed to help prevent power outages, limit their spread, and restore power more quickly. Xcel Energy is installing this equipment in some of its substations in Minnesota already.
Some experts say all this potential energy saving means we should re-think the electrical system from top to bottom. Smart grid pilot projects on the West Coast have shaved 20 percent from peak demand -- more quickly and more cheaply than building new power lines.
The federal government wants state regulators to require utilities to at least consider smart grid technologies before they propose big projects like power plants or transmission lines -- including projects like CapX 2020, where several utilities want to build four big new power lines criss-crossing the state.
The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission is starting to lay out rules about when utilities should be required to at least consider smart grid approaches, and what they might include.
- All Things Considered, 09/30/2008, 5:50 p.m.