State, CVPS announce new “smart” grid plans in VT

Rutland, VT, Aug. 6, 2008 — Formally kicking off collaboration that could lead to improved electricity metering, storm recovery and efficiency technology statewide, Central Vermont Public Service and the Department of Public Service announced a pilot program that could serve as a model for other Vermont utilities.

“Through this collaboration, we will develop templates and standards for new meter and communications technology that should significantly improve electric service and consumer efficiency,” DPS commissioner David O’Brien said. “That said, we do not intend to create a one-size-fits-all system. What works for one utility may not work for another, however, we expect that CVPS’s effort will be a learning process for others.”

“Out of this collaboration we will develop a program, CVPS SmartPower, which will improve our metering, billing, and service in the years ahead,” CVPS president Bob Young said. “This is a long-term strategy that ultimately will lead to more efficient use of energy, improved storm restoration, outage management, and better management and operation of electrical systems, all of which would benefit our customers. This will be one of the most important technological changes and one of the largest single capital investments — estimated at $40 million — in CVPS history.”

Words like “smart grid,” “advanced metering infrastructure,” and “future grid” have become common in the utility industry of late, but there is little consensus on what those terms mean, for utilities or customers. Part of the collaborative effort, which will include any Vermont utility that wants to participate, will be to develop a common understanding of these terms and what they mean in Vermont. CVPS developed the name CVPS SmartPower so it could define its specific effort and stay away from confusing terms that have different meanings to different audiences.

“CVPS SmartPower will be a systematic program to analyze and install the latest in metering technology over several years. Initially, the intent will be to improve meter reading, billing, service connections and disconnections and existing load management programs by providing two-way communication between CVPS and our meters,” Young said. “Through the collaboration announced today, pending approval by the CVPS and Vermont Public Service boards, we believe it will ultimately grow to improve our service restoration, expand our time-of-day rate programs, improve customer communication and knowledge about their energy use, and provide real-time rates.”

O’Brien said he hoped the CVPS program would be the first step toward an even broader statewide effort that would provide both the kinds of improvements Young described, and broader improvements to the transmission grid in Vermont. “The technology of the electric system hasn’t changed much since 1896, when the electric grid was first created,” O’Brien said. “While the digital age has advanced with faster computers and handheld devices that deliver streaming video to consumers, electric customers functionally have the same electric meter on their house as they did 50 years ago. Our intent is to empower customers by giving them the technology to make informed decisions about their energy use. Just as consumers are pulling up to the pump and re-thinking how much they drive and what car they drive, we want ratepayers to see real time the cost of their electric use and maybe turn down the air conditioning. Today we take a critical step toward that future.”

O’Brien and Young, speaking at a daylong kick-off meeting, stressed that the Vermont effort was on the cutting edge, so a deliberate pace, both in creating a broad regulatory outline of goals and objectives and CVPS’s actual implementation, will take time. “While we want to move expeditiously so customers can see the benefits of these new technologies, there are critical decisions to be made by the state, CVPS, and any utility that follows suit,” O’Brien said. “We collectively need to make good decisions.”

In the meantime, the Department of Public Service is working with the other New England states to move forward on smart meter technology. “Imagine the magnitude of millions of electric consumers in southern New England responding to real-time prices and what that could mean to market prices,” added O’Brien.”

Given the costs of advanced meter and communication systems, Young said stringent evaluation of costs and benefits would be necessary to determine exactly what technologies and functions to employ. “In our case, there is a financial case to be made for the investment, but the real value is in the service enhancements,” Young said.

O’Brien said the initial collaboration would last into early 2009, followed by a CVPS request for vender proposals. The hope is to have a technology selection and contract awarded for the CVPS project by this time next year, with installation beginning in the fall. That will entail new communications systems between CVPS and all 100 of its substations, followed by the installation of advanced customer meters between 2011 and 2013.

“That may seem like quite a ways off, but this is a dramatic shift in utility operations and planning, and as a state it’s critical that it be done correctly,” O’Brien said.

Sandra Levine, senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation’s Vermont Advocacy Center, which is participating in the collaboration, said the project had broad implications for energy use. “We applaud this effort,” Levine said. “It will help customers reduce energy use, save money, and reduce pollution.”

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