Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Chattanooga's Smart Grid

Here's an interesting story from today's Tennessean...

Smart grid electricity costs less, wastes less
Power management goes high tech

Electricity meters smart enough to save the customer money by staying in constant touch with the power company are on the way in parts of Tennessee, the first wave toward building an energy-efficient network to replace the antiquated U.S. power system.

While the Tennessee Valley Authority and most of its distributors — including Nashville Electric Service — are still hammering out the possibilities of a so-called smart energy grid, some utilities are deep into making the initial changes needed.

One is the Electric Power Board in Chattanooga, where customer Charles Beamon is pleased with what he has seen.

"No question about it, it saves me money on power," said Beamon, one of a few dozen Chattanoogans who tried out the system for more than a year. "Overall I'm very happy with the new meter and thermostat."

Studies from the U.S. Department of Energy and energy experts outline what a smart grid can bring: energy independence, homeland security benefits, the ability to incorporate renewable energy resources, added revenue and savings to consumers.

A report from the nonprofit Electric Power Research Institute estimates $1.8 trillion a year in benefits by 2020 nationwide with the much more efficient and reliable system. It also could be a key in reducing emissions that the EPA says contribute to global warming.

In Chattanooga, the pilot program with 32 residences saved up to $48 a month for customers and reduced energy use that would have resulted in emissions equal to 17 cars, the Electric Power Board says.

If all customers had taken part, the savings could be equal to taking 84,000 vehicles off the road each year — or nearly 675 million pounds of carbon dioxide.

Water heaters and heating/air-conditioning systems were remotely turned off for brief periods. The people in the households rarely if ever noticed, according to the follow-up survey.

Beamon's electric bill at his all-electric home totaled $29 last month. It's a small home, 800 square feet, plus his water heater is timed to run just an hour in the morning and evening.

The meters have two-way communication with the power distributor. That opens lots of possibilities, including the ability for a customer to know how much energy is consumed by, say, a washer and dryer, and when's the best time to use them.

Someday, the TVA system is expected to offer residents different prices for electricity depending on the season and time of day, providing an incentive to use power when it's plentiful and cheaper and to help TVA avoid the need to build new, polluting power plants.

Customers could go online to see their energy use or get gizmos that alert them as the cost rises.

Benefits already seen

Officials at the Chattanooga utility studied smart meters and grids for about seven years before starting construction on a $170 million system, said Jim Ingraham, vice president of strategic planning.

A network also is being put in place that includes $60 million worth of electronics to offer customers broadband Internet, telephone and fiber optic television. It's all expected to pay for itself, with savings of $30 million a year projected.

Savings in operation costs already are being seen that benefit customers in the city-owned system, Ingraham said.

When high winds splintered trees and downed power lines two weeks ago, electricity for 10,000 customers was restored in seconds, thanks to the self-analyzing and self-correcting smart grid that's in place.

The fiber optics system and software located the problem, creating a different route for power to reach customers. As a result, time and money lost to interrupted power was saved, as was the cost of crews having to spend time finding the problem.

Chattanooga sets example

Chattanooga should have smart meters throughout its system within five years, officials say.

Nashville Electric Service, which sees benefits in smart meters, began looking into the possibility in earnest three years ago, said Tony Richman of NES.

With a customer base of about 350,000 — twice as many as in Chattanooga — NES has no solid plans but is part of discussions with TVA and other distributors on what to do.

In Clarksville, the public utility has begun installing a fiber optic network to its customers, although controversy has developed over related contracts.

TVA itself has a smart grid vision, but getting there is the issue. It is working with its 158 distributors, which have a variety of needs. Six pilot programs are planned this summer to help sort out how to proceed.

"Chattanooga's investment and leadership are a model for the rest of the (Tennessee) Valley," said Mike Ingram, TVA's senior manager for demand response.

TVA hopes to tap into federal stimulus money that includes $615 million for smart meter projects and more $3.3 billion for infrastructure.

Either way, Ingram said, it will proceed — just a bit more slowly without outside funding. The agency's goal is to put energy efficiencies in place by 2012 that would save 1,400 megawatts of electricity — the output of a large nuclear-powered generating plant.

Smart metering is part of the plan.

Reducing electricity use without sacrificing comfort or convenience is the real prize of a smart grid system, Chattanooga Electric Power Board's Ingraham said.

"The big thing about the smart grid is that it's an investment in the future," Ingraham said, "but it's an investment that is going to pay dividends now."

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