Tuesday, October 20, 2009

More Smart Grid News

Today's Commercial Appeal has a story on MLGW's Smart Grid efforts. It's pasted below. Don't forget the info I posted last week which may answer some questions.

6 Memphis ZIPs may get zap of utility information
By Daniel Connolly

Residents of six city ZIP codes may soon experience Memphis Light, Gas and Water's "smart grid" project, which could lead to profound changes in how people in the Mid-South buy energy.

Some customers would have digital displays in their homes that would tell them exactly how much energy they're using each day, rather than waiting for a monthly bill. Other customers could get the same information from the Internet.

The utility's board voted last week to include $13.8 million in its 2010 budget for the first phase of the project, which will pay for new meters, software and better intelligence of power outages. Utility leaders hope to recover $6.9 million through a federal grant.

This week, the utility expects to receive proposals from interested contractors.

The contractors would install meters and other equipment for the 70,000 business and residential customers in the six ZIP codes affected: 38104, 38106, 38108, 38111, 38114 and 38122.

MLGW expects to begin implementation in the first half of 2010.

The smart-grid project might prompt customers to think twice about decisions like leaving a big-screen TV plugged in, since it uses power even when it's off, said Laura Campbell, an MLGW engineer in charge of the project.

And meter readers would no longer contend with vicious dogs and locked gates, since bills could be calculated remotely, she said. Utility workers could look at a screen to identify houses affected by power outages, then make changes to isolate the outages, she said.

But smart grid faces opposition from a labor union concerned about costs and job losses.

The project also faces serious technical challenges: The concept is so new that there's no standard way for different companies' systems to work with one another.

MLGW is one of many utilities around the country pursuing the smart grid, which the Obama administration has embraced as a way to save energy. Campbell said the utility selected ZIP codes where customers use the most energy per square foot, and have an existing wireless communications infrastructure.

MLGW hopes to expand the system once equipment prices drop, Campbell said. The utility hasn't calculated a total price tag yet.

One key concept in the smart grid system is "time-of-use metering." That means power might cost different amounts at different times, to discourage use at peak hours.

To meet peak demand, power companies operate some plants that run as little as 300 hours per year. Avoiding the construction of new plants could save costs and cut pollution, Campbell said.

In the future, customers might be able to store up energy in batteries at low-cost night rates and sell it back to the company at high-cost day rates, said Sam Spencer, the editor of a Maryland-based newsletter called Smart Grid Today.

That would be impossible on today's electrical grids, which are more or less the same as they've been for decades.

"The electric industry has come only a tiny step into the computer age," he said.

Spencer says the smart-grid concept brings a lot of benefits, but a downside is that the cost of the infrastructure can be passed to the consumer. That's already led to complaints in places like Bakersfield, Calif.

There are other problems. Companies are developing products that use different electronic languages to talk with one another. It's a bit like the videocassette format war between Beta and VHS, Spencer said.

Bill Hawkins of the International Brotherhood of Electric Workers, a labor union representing some MLGW workers, says he's been attending national conferences to learn about the smart grid, and that he's not impressed.

"It doesn't work," he said. "It's a concept on a piece of paper."

He also says it would lead to layoffs and could lead to higher costs for consumers, since the new meters allow the utility to charge different rates at different times.

The utility says it would find new jobs for the displaced workers. It also said customers could likely choose whether or not to participate in the time-of-use metering.

--Daniel Connolly: 529-5296

Smart Grid

The six ZIP codes that would be getting new meters are 38104, 38106, 38108, 38111, 38114 and 38122.

Implementation expected to begin in first half of 2010.

In 2006, MLGW concluded it would cost about $119 million to replace all of its meters. The utility hasn't recalculated the price since then.

"The electric industry has come only a tiny step into the computer age."

Sam Spencer

editor of Smart Grid Today

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