Utilities use network-connected meters and other new technologies to build a smart grid that will reduce outages, cut costs and improve customer service.
Xcel Energy's Simon: The smart grid must be a secure grid
Gas and electric utilities are poised to pounce on some of the latest technologies to improve processes and enhance services as they update the aging energy grid. Real-time and predictive analytics and sensors are among the technologies helping leading-edge utilities manage their resources, automate processes such as meter reads, and reduce outages by detecting potential faults before equipment fails.
Utilities also are finding ways to involve customers in smarter energy consumption. Pilot projects are providing real-time usage information to consumers so they can better match their own energy use to times when rates are lower. Other pilot programs are testing Internet-based remote controls of home devices such as air conditioners, enabling customers to better manage consumption when they're out of the house.
While smart grids have enormous promise, they also face serious challenges, from organizational inertia to financial incentives that are slanted toward consumption rather than conservation. Adoption and rollout of new equipment can be slowed by requirements to thoroughly test and certify new devices.
Despite these challenges, smart grid development has significant momentum. With the Obama administration recently announcing $3.4 billion in smart grid funding from the federal stimulus package, energy companies will have the money to develop and deploy technologies such as smart meters, digital transformers, and automated power monitoring and management systems.
Indeed, utilities already are embarking on ambitious technology projects aimed at revamping the way they do business. A prime example is Xcel Energy, a Minneapolis-based provider of electricity and natural gas, which recently launched SmartGridCity, billed as the world's first fully functioning smart-grid-enabled city.
The project, in Boulder, Colo., is designed to increase the reliability of utility services, provide customers with more energy-usage information, and allow participating customers and Xcel Energy to control in-home energy management devices remotely. It's a pilot program that could become a blueprint for future smart grid communities, says Sandy Simon, director of utility innovations and smart grid strategy at Xcel Energy.
A grid monitoring system is among the technologies Xcel Energy is using to reduce outages. By analyzing real-time data retrieved from sensors deployed on the distribution grid, the system detects potential low-voltage problems, letting Xcel Energy address them. It can also predict equipment failures and proactively make needed repairs before outages occur. For example, the company says it averted four potentially long-term outages this year when the system detected transformers that were about to fail.
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Xcel Energy also is looking at other ways to use the data it can collect from grid sensors. One idea is to ensure that the appropriate voltage is being provided to meet the expected demand in a given area and reduce line loss, which would greatly enhance the service and reduce costs. The company also is evaluating the system's ability to switch power through fully automated substations and re-route power around bottlenecked lines.
The SmartGridCity project includes automation of four of five distribution substations, four computer-monitored power feeders, and another 23 feeders that are watched for voltage irregularities. About 200 miles of fiber optic cable and 4,600 residential and small business transformers now are connected to the grid system.
Smart meters also are an important component of Xcel Energy's plans. Unlike traditional meters, which simply measure usage and require a human meter reader to go onsite and write down a string of numbers, smart readers can be read remotely, without the need to dispatch a technician. Xcel Energy also can combine data gathered from grid sensors with smart meter information to identify outages more quickly. The utility currently has about 16,000 smart meters connected to the grid.
Before the end of this year, Xcel Energy plans to launch an in-home energy management Web portal. Boulder customers with smart meters can log on to the portal and review their energy usage. The service, which Xcel Energy is rolling out to residential customers that opt in, will give customers the opportunity to be smarter energy consumers. For instance, instead of running the dishwasher or clothes dryer during peak hours when rates are high, they can run them at off-peak hours and save money.