The idea is catching on as far away as Denmark, where it is the basis of a project integrating renewable energy and electric cars with the grid.
When the system was tested on the Olympic Peninsula, it reduced electricity demand during peak times by 15 percent, on average. During one period of particularly tight supply for power, consumption dropped 50 percent. Consumers saved about 10 percent on their power bills.
That system involved a relatively small geographic area, and it’s not clear it will work on a larger scale. One concern that the demonstration will address, Ambrosio says, is the potential development of feedback loops that can make the system unstable. The concern is that smart devices in 60,000 homes over five large western states could cause unexpected fluctuations in demand that power generators can’t keep up with. That problem may be exacerbated when changes in weather or technical problems are added to the mix.
The project will also involve coordinating electric vehicle demand and automating responses to fallen power lines. Altogether, the smart grid project could allow utilities to make much better use of existing equipment, saving billions of dollars. By lowering demand during peak hours, it could reduce the need for utilities to build more transmission lines to meet peak demand. Smart systems could also allow existing transmission lines to carry more power (lines now carry as little as 85 percent of their rated capacity to allow for unexpected problems).
Ambrosio’s goal is to run the lines at 95 to 97 percent capacity. “We’re asking, can we eliminate outages altogether?” Ambrosio says.