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Wind blast: Existing wind farms in southern California, like this one north of Santa Clarita, are being augmented by larger farms as new transmission lines link the area with greater Los Angeles.

In one of the more advanced pilot projects testing such a system, the Minneapolis-based utility Xcel Energy and several vendors are investing $100 million to install a smart-grid infrastructure in Boulder, CO. These days, a 115-person Xcel crew is out full time, installing two-way electric meters at 50,000 houses. Homeowners are getting software that lets them view and manage their energy consumption on the Web, and some of their appliances are being fitted with switches that will let the utility shut them off remotely during periods of high demand.

Smart-grid technologies could reduce overall electricity consumption by 6 percent and peak demand by as much as 27 percent. The peak-demand reductions alone would save between $175 billion and $332 billion over 20 years, according to the Brattle Group, a consultancy in Cambridge, MA. Not only would lower demand free up transmission capacity, but the capital investment that would otherwise be needed for new conventional power plants could be redirected to renewables. That’s because smart-grid technologies would make small installations of wind turbines and photovoltaic panels much more practical. “They will enable much larger amounts of renewables to be integrated on the grid and lower the effective overall system-wide cost of those renewables,” says the Brattle Group’s Peter Fox-Penner.

In Boulder, for example, Xcel is encouraging consumers to install solar panels on their roofs and banks of batteries in their basements–part of a plan to demonstrate how the variable power produced by thousands or millions of solar roofs could be stored in individual homes and fed into the grid when needed. In recent months, Xcel has even purchased a few plug-in hybrid cars and connected them to the grid, in order to test software that would let the vehicles act as energy-storage devices.

And Xcel is not alone. Startups and large companies alike are perfecting and commercializing solar roofing materials, basement energy-storage devices, batteries for plug-in hybrids, and clever software to optimize electricity use. But just as large-scale ­renewable-power generation depends on improving the transmission infrastructure, many of these advances are useless without better grid controls. You can’t use a plug-in’s battery for grid storage if the grid cannot intelligently retrieve power from the car.

The good news is that many utilities have begun installing the requisite meters–ones that intelligently monitor power flow out of a house as well as into it. The question now is how to move beyond the blizzard of pilot projects, install smarter technologies across the grid, and begin integrating more renewable power into the new infrastructure. “The smart-grid vision is nice; we all have our color PowerPoint slides,” says Don Von Dollen, who manages intelligent-­grid research at EPRI. “I think people kind of get the vision by now. Now it’s time to get stuff done.”

Vicious Circle
Last summer, former vice president Al Gore began arguing that the country needed to implement an entirely carbon-free electricity system within a decade to avert the danger of global warming. As part of his vision, Gore called for a “unified national smart grid” that would move power generated from renewable sources to cities, increase the efficiency of electricity use, and allow for greater control over renewable resources. He estimated that the grid overhaul would cost $400 billion over 10 years.

Gore’s plan doesn’t spell out exactly how such a massive project would be executed. “If it’s faster to have comprehensive legislation that gets states to work together and gets private capital to flow in, terrific,” says Cathy Zoi, CEO of the Alliance for Climate Protection, the nonprofit that Gore founded in Menlo Park, CA, to press for urgent action on climate change. “If it’s faster and easier to allocate federal money and do this as a public-works project, that’s fine, too. We are not wedded to one policy instrument.”

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Credits: Ewan Burns
Video by David Talbot

Tagged: Energy, GE

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