Monday, January 23, 2012

Will a smart grid make us smarter?

The smart grid is a concept whose time has definitely come. It would represent a real commitment to dramatically increase society's efforts to use electricity more efficiently - saving resources, money while enhancing environmental quality.

But the real unanswered question is, will the existence of a smart grid automatically make us more responsible consumers? Will relatively small individual savings be enough to create a significant collective impact? (GW)

ComEd’s Smart Grid Begins With a Promise for the Future

by Bridget O'Shea and James O'Shea
Chicago News Cooperative
January 23, 2012

Substation No. 505 in Oak Park, with its nondescript cluster of bulky transformers and web of power lines, seems an unlikely place for Commonwealth Edison to start the $2.6 billion smart grid it says will prepare the region’s antiquated power system for the digital age.

Arguments raged over legislation, approved last year over Gov. Pat Quinn’s veto, that authorizes ComEd’s 10-year investment in the grid. ComEd says that the project will ultimately save customers more than it costs them. Quinn said he felt the legislation allowed power companies to circumvent a century-old process of setting rates, and thereby weaken oversight by the Illinois Commerce Commission.

Often lost amid the disagreements, however, is the question of how the grid should work and whether it will improve how consumers use electricity. The legislation places Illinois and ComEd squarely in the evolving national movement toward a smart grid.

The Oak Park substation is a pilot project approved in 2009 and is meant to test new technology and the savings it can generate. As ComEd’s first “intelligent” substation, No. 505 is outfitted with scores of state-of-the-art electronic sensors that monitor the flow of electricity. The sensors can analyze up to 1,500 pieces of information every two seconds and alert ComEd managers when — or even before — a problem happens.

Microprocessors can almost instantly switch a troubled line to an alternative power source and minimize outages, said Rich Gordus Jr., a smart grid manager at ComEd.

Val Jensen, a vice president at ComEd, said the current grid was “relatively dumb, meaning that we put power into the grid at the plant and then it flows according to the law of physics through all of those wires.”

The system, he said, “can’t tell when a power line goes down, when you lose power at your house, when a substation is overloaded or overheated.” ComEd investigates outages only after customers call to complain.

Smart-grid technology, Jensen said, can tell operators whether a fan has malfunctioned, if the system is losing coolants or why a substation is overheating. “Otherwise,” he said, “the only way we could tell is if we sent a person out there to check and then went in and started looking at a bunch of gauges.”

The electric grid extends from the power plant to the meter on individual houses. Bill Kautz, a smart grid expert and petroleum marketing manager at Tellabs, a telecommunications company in Naperville, said upgrading the system into a smart grid typically involved two elements.

The first, he said, is updating transformers, substations and transmission lines. “Anything with power being carried over some form of copper cables degrades over time. The insulators degrade over time so upgrading them is one of the key factors in this.”

Anne Pramaggiore, ComEd’s chief executive officer, estimated that about half of the $2.6 billion cost of the project involved these upgrades. Officials say the upgrades will make the system more efficient and reliable.

Kautz said the second element involves installation of communication systems — technology added to the upgraded system that can alert a network control center of problems over fiber optic cables. Pramaggiore estimated the communication improvements would cost $1.3 billion.

ComEd says that the bill approved last year contains a rate-setting process that protects consumers. The legislation, which ComEd says will initially add about $3 a month to the average utility bill, imposes financial penalties on the company if it fails to deliver on promised savings in the future.

Smart grid advocates say they hope to achieve savings by giving consumers the ability to buy more power at off-peak hours, when electricity costs ComEd less and therefore costs its customers less. Skeptics say there is not much evidence that consumers will take advantage of the technology.

Smart grid advocates often talk of so-called smart meters attached to houses, which are capable of automatically monitoring power usage. They also say appliances outfitted with computer chips can be programmed to run at a time of day when power costs less.

“Now, when you want to dry a load of clothes, you turn on the clothes dryer in your basement and you’re probably not that concerned about when your clothes will be dry,” said David M. Nicol, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “But suppose that dryer was smart enough — and dryers are a high-energy user — that you put your load in and it was programmed to say, well I want this done within 12 hours but choose a time when energy is cheaper, and so you just leave it to the computer.”

Nicol said smart dryers were not yet on the market, but he said the technology exists. Unfortunately, he said, no one really knows how widely consumers will use smart appliances or use power when it is less expensive.

Nicol cited studies that showed consumers did not capitalize on the technology because the relative cost of energy was not high enough. The studies suggest people do not behave different to save only $2 a day.

“People just don’t do that,” Nicol said. “So the way to take advantage of this stuff is to automate if possible but that gets you into a whole raft of other issues. So if you ask me, the jury’s still out.”

Nicol said that if smart devices changed consumer behavior, electric power markets might change as well, and that could affect the price. Power markets are now relatively static — they know how power will be used based on historical yardsticks maintained by utility companies.

But if new devices automatically tell your dryer when it’s cheapest to dry the clothes, he said, then the price of electricity could start to change dynamically according to the time of the day it is used. And that, in turn, would change equations on power markets.

Under this logic, if a utility company knows that it must supply a certain level of power at a certain time of day, it can acquire the electrical capacity on auction markets to make sure that it can supply its customers’ power needs. If, however, the need is constantly changing, demand for power will be less predictable and the utility company will have to adjust its buying patterns, thereby affecting the price.

“When you change the way energy is going to be used by consumers,” Nicol said, “that’s going to affect the markets and it’s going to affect the way people buy and sell power.” The question remains whether those changes will save consumers money or cost them more.

Some watching the nascent development of the smart grid think the industry should push ahead regardless of doubts or challenges. The potential for energy efficiency and environmental benefits, they say, is simply too great.

AARP Illinois backed Quinn’s veto of the smart grid legislation, but Scott Musser, the group’s associate director, said the organization was not completely opposed to the new technology. “It’s who pays for it and what’s the benefit and how is it done,” he said. “Those are things that the legislation didn’t answer. We just know the consumers will be paying for it in the next decade.”

The AARP, he said, will be watching.


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