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Solar News

Building the Smart Grid


Will Consumers Utilize the Technology?

Most citizens in the United States live in cities. Many of these cities lie close to the coasts. Most supplies of renewable energy lie in remote areas in the interior of the country. It appears we have a geographical problem to overcome. One solution is the construction of a smart grid throughout the United States.  Discover Magazine reporter Peter Fairley wrote an in depth story about the next generation smart grid in June's edition.

"Today's power grids are designed for local delivery, linking customers in a given city or region to power plants relatively nearby. But local grids are ill-suited to distributing energy from the alternative sources of tomorrow. North America's strongest winds, most intense sunlight, and hottest geothermal springs are largely concentrated in remote regions hundreds or thousands of miles from the big cities that need electricity most."

Fairley discusses several components that make up a smart grid. One feature is the construction of more high voltage lines to carry these loads greater distances all while losing less of their energy. Another important aspect is the standardization of currents across the grid. However, the most difficult feature is the inclusion of consumers on the back end. It is important that consumers optimize their energy conservation in order for a smart grid to work best.

Fairley writes in his story about a test getting underway by Xcel Energy in Boulder, Colorado.

"By this summer, 25,000 families and businesses in Boulder should have the key tool they will need: a 21st-century upgrade to the humble electromagnetic meters measuring power consumption in basements across the country. Those old meters epitomize today's power grids, where a steady but essentially blind flow of electricity and the occasional visit by a meter reader is all that links power plants and distribution systems to consumers.

"The smart meter will check in with the Xcel's central office every few seconds via signals sent over the power line itself, creating a two-way digital conversation. Instantly the utility will know how much power a given customer is using, and perhaps even how much she plans to consume later.

"In a couple of months, customers in Boulder with smart meters should be able to check their energy usage in real time. By early next year they should be able to check grid conditions and control usage over the Internet-for instance, reducing consumption while away from home by activating a vacation mode."

Boulder's Daily Camera online paper featured a story highlighting some citizens concerns with a smart grid system.

"The new grid technology could let customers give Xcel the authority to turn down the power to their air conditioners or other energy-hog appliances to help save power during peak-use periods. It could also let customers power-up their appliances when the data shows that more energy is being produced by alternative sources like solar and wind power. Customers and utilities need to be on the same page before that kind of relationship works, because many customers are frightened by the idea of the power company remotely turning off the lights."

Xcel's vice president of customer care Ken Floyd talked about some of companies concerns with consumers and a smart grid. 

" 'They don't trust utilities. They see us as big brother. They say, are they looking at me in my shower? What are they doing? It's not something that we do, but there's this relationship, and there's some distrust. Part of my job is to change that relationship. In the dead of summer, will they change their behavior, or will they opt out? As soon as it hits 95 degrees, will they say; you know what, I'm not interested?' "