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Power Connections

‘Smart Grid’ Is in Eyes of the Beholder

Progress is coming, nonetheless

The term “smart grid” has taken on a life of its own, even as people try to agree on what it means. The closer consumers and energy professionals get to defining a smart grid, the more they realize it is not a single entity.

“The term doesn’t mean anything specific,” said Martin Gordon, a program manager with the Cooperative Research Network who spoke at the Texas Electric Cooperatives (TEC) Annual Meeting in August. TEC is the statewide association for electric cooperatives.

Gordon explained that the general goal is to establish a system in which electric consumers’ home meters have two-way communication with the electric co–op.

Certainly there have been advances. Take meter reading, for example. Originally, many co-ops asked members to walk outside their homes and get a reading on their electricity usage for billing purposes at a particular time each month. Other co-ops had meter readers walk routes, record information and return to the office with it. Then came automated meter-reading equipment that can send electricity usage information from customers’ boxes to co-ops. The latest thing is automated meter infrastructure that can instantly provide a co-op and a customer with up-to-the-minute electricity usage figures. 

But this is just one component of a smart grid. The process of making systems communicate with one another is in its infancy. The various components that would make up a smart grid don’t necessarily share a common language. Experts have to program the components to talk to one another. Integrating the various systems is slow going.

In addition, Gordon said consumer psychology is the most important element of a program. “Will it change people’s behavior?” he asked. If consumers don’t want to fine-tune their electric usage to conserve electricity and save money, then the interactive improvements won’t matter much, he explained. Some consumers say that electric utilities should refrain from telling them how much electricity to use.

Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative, based in Bastrop, is a leader in moving toward a smart grid and, beyond that, to what General Manager/CEO Mark Rose calls a “sustainable” grid. In an essay on that vision, he writes that the co-op “will set goals to neutralize, if not reduce, our system’s impact on the overall state grid.”

The co-op is purchasing an energy-management system with in-home displays and programmable smart thermostats that will give customers the data and device control necessary to manage energy use and expenses. An in-home, wireless, touch-screen device will provide consumers with updates on energy usage and costs, tips for saving money on energy bills, power alerts, including power spikes from the utility, and information on various loads and activity within the home.

Pending board approval of Bluebonnet’s five-year business plan, the cooperative will fund a transformation of its entire electric distribution system to a smart grid through its rates and long-term borrowing. The co-op already has an alphabet soup of infrastructure improvements, including a new business information system (BIS) and customer information system (CIS) designed by a company called SAP, a digital microwave network and geographic information (GIS), outage management (OMS) and automatic vehicle locator (AVL) systems. The co-op can instantly read any meter, check its status and efficiently pull up a member’s current account information. In many cases, this allows the co-op to alert customers to a problem before they discover it themselves. All of these improvements make the co-op more efficient. In fact, Rose says the co-op has reduced its costs and labor force by 30 percent.

Bluebonnet plans to start integrating smart grid technology in its members’ homes and businesses by the end of June. 

Many other Texas electric cooperatives are also applying for federal grants to upgrade their networks.

Kaye Northcott is retired editor of Texas Co-op Power.