Smart Grid Becoming a Reality

Steven Brown, editor in chief

In this month’s Smart Grid Perspectives column (page 56), our contributing authors from IBM point out that while the investment necessary to turn our 20th century analog grid into a 21st century “smart” grid may appear daunting, the benefits to all stakeholders are tangible and substantial.

And it’s not just vendor-speak. It seems that every week we see more announcements from utilities undertaking projects to advance the concepts of intelligent grid technology.

San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) has been given the go-ahead by the California PUC to start work on a half-billion-dollar smart meter project that the utility says “will revolutionize how it delivers services to customers and how customers manage their energy usage.”

The PUC has approved $572 million for the SDG&E smart meter project from 2007 through 2011. SDG&E plans to begin replacing an estimated 1.4 million electric meters with smart meters and retrofitting approximately 900,000 gas meters throughout its service territory beginning in 2008.

Debra L. Reed, SDG&E’s president and CEO, says the smart meter program will reduce SDG&E’s operating costs by deferring traditional capital expenditures on distribution facilities, eliminating manual meter reading, reducing unnecessary trips to a customer’s home to activate or shut off service, and detecting and restoring service more quickly after an outage.

The SDG&E plan also has the blessing of ratepayer advocacy groups. The California PUC’s Division of Ratepayer Advocates and the Utility Consumers’ Action Network concurred that the smart meter program is an investment that will improve customer service by providing more information on energy usage, assisting in electric system outage detection and restoration, and transforming the meter-reading and other service processes.

Also recently announced: CenterPoint Energy Houston Electric, the T&D subsidiary of CenterPoint Energy Inc., has signed on as the founding member of a group of utility companies working with IBM to accelerate the adoption of what IBM calls “Intelligent Utility Network” (IUN) technologies and solutions.

IBM and CenterPoint Energy are already collaborating on several projects, including the limited deployment of an advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) that allows remote connection and disconnection of service and automated meter reads for customers in the Houston area. In the future, this technology is designed to allow Retail Electric Providers (REPs) the opportunity to offer customers enhanced products and services, and to facilitate movement by customers between electric providers. The technology is also expected to give customers the ability to better manage their energy usage through real-time price signals and the ability to remotely control appliances.

In conjunction with the AMI project, IBM and CenterPoint Energy are also implementing components of a “self-healing grid,” which will provide information and analytics to improve outage detection and restoration times, grid planning and ongoing operations. This limited deployment provides the field trials that will enable CenterPoint Energy to anticipate problems, find solutions and optimize the performance of its power delivery system. For customers, that should mean improved service reliability, as well as better and quicker responses to outages.

The pieces are falling into place. With forward-thinking utilities like SDG&E and CenterPoint leading the way, the smart grid is fast becoming a reality.

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