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Archive for the ‘smart grid’ Category

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

Over the past year, a revolt against the rollout of utility Pacific Gas & Electric’s smart meters has swept through Northern California as some customers claimed the devices’ wireless transmission of electricity data was harming their health. In response, city councils in a number of cities tried to ban their installation.

On Thursday, PG&E, acting under orders from state regulators, unveiled a proposal to let customers have their smart meter’s radio turned off — for a price. PG&E would charge a one-time fee ranging from $105 to $270 and then customers would pay between $14 and $20 a month for two years. All in all, it would cost about $600 for the average customer to disable their smart meter.

“This cost is based on what it costs PG&E to disable the radio, adjust our IT system, adjust our billing system, and to manually read customers,” Paul Moreno, a PG&E spokesperson, said in an email.

In other words, that’s the price of dumbing down smart meters.

Tens of the millions of the devices are being installed nationwide and are a linchpin of the coming smart grid. Smart meters monitor electricity use in real time, allowing utilities to better balance supply and demand and charge accordingly. Customers can use that data to adjust their electricity use when rates are high and pinpoint the power hogs in their homes.

PG&E expects nearly 150,000 of its 5.1 million customers to shut down their smart meters’ radio transmitters.

“There is a loss of the benefits of the smart grid (power outage detection, ability to participate in demand response programs to reduce peak demand energy and better utilize renewable power),” said Moreno.

While the rollout has gone fairly smoothly in Southern California, some activists in the greater Bay Area claim the frequencies emitted by the smart meters’ wireless transmitters have triggered migraines and myriad other health problems.

“I’m here to charge you with the following criminal counts,” one person told members of the California Public Utilities Commission at a meeting last September. “This is misguided, Big Brother green ideology that the smart meters support.”

“This is massive experimentation of massive proportions and we are the victims,” declared another person.

Mobile phones, microwave ovens, and a host of other household gadgets also emit such frequencies, and to date there has been no scientific evidence to support claims about the health effects of smart meters.

(When I was at Southern California Edison in Los Angeles last October, an executive told me that utility had received only a handful of complaints about its smart meters.)

Nonetheless, regulators ordered PG&E to allow customers to opt out of the smart-meter program. The utilities commission must approve the utility’s proposal, so expect more fireworks over the cost of disabling smart meters.

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I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

In just about every story on renewable energy, there’s a familiar cast of characters: green power developers, utilities, and sundry state and federal regulators. But there’s one key player that often lurks in the background – the grid operator.

In the Golden State, most of the power grid is controlled by the California Independent System Operator. Based in a suburb of Sacramento, Cal ISO, as it’s known, essentially ensures that electricity supply and demand stay in balance to prevent brownouts, blackouts, and other catastrophic failures.

The agency also approves requests for big solar power plants, wind farms, and other renewable energy sources to connect to the grid. You may win approval for your project from the California Energy Commission and the United States Interior Department, but unless Cal ISO gives you the green light to plug into the grid, that big solar farm is nothing but a big white elephant.

The prospect of thousands of megawatts of intermittent sources of electricity like solar and wind jolting the grid — and then blinking off when a cloud passes overhead or the wind dies — poses a huge balancing act for grid operators. That’s especially true in place like California, which has mandated that a third of its electricity be generated from renewable sources by 2020.

So it was significant, if little noticed, when Cal ISO this month announced it would begin to integrate energy storage devices like batteries and flywheels into the grid.

Energy storage is increasingly seen as crucial for greening the grid. Electricity from wind farms, which in California typically generate the most power at night when demand is low, could be stored in giant battery arrays and released during the day when demand and rates rise.

Utility Pacific Gas & Electric, for instance, plans to store energy in the form of compressed air pumped into a cavern. When needed, the air would be released to power an electricity-generating turbine. The utility is also exploring using renewable energy to pump water uphill to a reservoir. When demand spikes, the water would be allowed to flow downhill and run a turbine.

Another utility, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, plans to install lithium ion battery arrays at solar-powered homes to store electricity produced by photovoltaic arrays.

And last year, the California Legislature passed a law requiring regulators to determine if the state’s three big investor-owned utilities should be required to generate a certain percentage of electricity from energy storage.

Cal ISO’s early energy storage plans are modest, with just an initial 5 to 10 megawatts of storage integrated into the grid once federal officials given their okay. But it’s likely to be only the start.

“The integration of renewable sources introduces new requirements to reliably manage the grid,” Cal ISO’s chief executive, Yakout Mansour, said in a statement. “Our five-year strategic plan points out that storage technologies bring unique operational solutions to grid management as a tool for helping balance renewables on the system.”

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photo: Todd Woody

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

When experts try to describe the smart grid, their favorite analogy is the internet.

Just as the internet enabled interactive, two-way communication, the smart grid, we’re told, will deploy sensors and software to digitize a century-old analog electricity distribution system, transforming it into one capable of integrating renewable energy and decentralizing power production.

But while the benefits of the internet are manifest — YouTube, Facebook, Grist! — what will the smart grid do for you and me?

For most people, the most familiar part of the smart grid is the smart meter, those wireless digital devices being installed in homes by the millions so that residents can monitor electricity use in real time rather than through a monthly utility bill that arrives long after the power has been consumed.

Smart meters have been controversial in Northern California, where a number of communities have moved to ban the devices over fears about the potential health effects from their emission of electromagnetic frequencies. (Mobile phones, televisions, and other electronic devices also emit electromagnetic frequencies, and so far there has been no scientific evidence to support the health claims about smart meters.)

A sunnier view of the smart meter as a gateway to a new energy future emerges in Los Angeles, where utility Southern California Edison has built a model home with smart grid technology embedded in everything from the dishwasher to the thermostat.

“It’s much easier to show than tell,” says Mindy McDonald, a Southern California Edison project manager. She is standing outside the “Smart Energy Experience” home that’s been constructed inside the utility’s Customer Technology Application Center, just off the 210 freeway in the inland suburb of Irwindale. “Grappling with the smart grid, it’s much easier to just walk people through,” says McDonald.

The idea is to show people how smart grid technology can cut their electricity bills, reduce the need to build additional fossil fuel plants, and therefore cut greenhouse gas emissions.

A Coda electric car is parked in the stylish suburban ranch’s garage. Solar panels, a solar hot water system, and a wind turbine sit on the roof. LEDs provide the home’s lighting, and every appliance contains communication chips, allowing them to “talk” to each other and to the utility through the smart meter attached to the front of the house.

A video screen in the living room displays the home’s energy management system, and a large flat screen in the kitchen tracks the amount of electricity being consumed and its cost.

When McDonald turns on the washing machine and the air conditioner and then plugs in the car, an “energy speedometer” on the screen shows the cost of electricity rapidly accelerating from 11 cents an hour to $2.81. The display also tells the homeowner how much electricity has been consumed so far in the day and the price per kilowatt-hour.

“It’s really has an impact when you can see how much it’s costing and they realize that maybe they should turn something off,” McDonald says. “Most people don’t pay any attention to what electricity costs until they get their bill and it’s too late to do anything about it.”

The utility so far has installed smart meters in about a fifth of the 4.9 million households and businesses it serves. Beginning in January, those customers can set a monthly electricity budget and receive a text alert, email, or phone call when they’re on track to exceed their limit, according to McDonald.

Another upcoming program, called Save Power Days, will let customers sign up to have their electricity consumption automatically curtailed when demand — and prices — spike, say on a hot summer afternoon. In return, they could save up to $200 a year on their bills.

“Your meter would receive a notification and send it to your programmable communicating thermostat, and it would automatically raise or lower the home’s temperature,” says McDonald. “If you have energy management system, you could set it up any way you want.”

She touches the iPad that controls the house to show how a smart house would react. When the meter signals the energy management system, it adjusts the thermostats, turns off the air conditioner, and switches on ceiling fans. Window blinds lower to block sunlight and keep the house cooler while the lights are dimmed.

“It’s all automatic,” notes McDonald. “If you are home and you don’t want to participate, you can opt out by turning up thermostat temperature, or just push ‘opt out’ on the screen.”

Theodore F. Craver, Jr., chief executive of Edison International, the utility’s parent company, said in an interview that these technologies will change people’s relationship with the energy system.

“Most people think it’s out of sight, out of mind — as long as the light switch goes on and an appliance can be plugged in, that’s it,” he says. “Now the customer will interact with the grid instead of just being passive.”

The question is just how successful utilities will be at persuading people to become active participants in managing their energy consumption.

“Too many of them are saying just giving people more and better information about electricity use, for example, is automatically a huge environmental plus,” Ralph Cavanagh, the co-director of energy programs for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said at the E2 Environmental Entrepreneurs recent conference.

“I’m all for better information but the average electric bill in the average U.S. household is $3 a day,” he continued. “If all you’re talking about is giving people more and better information about their $3 a day, at some point many of them are going to conclude that they have more important things to do with their time.”

Said Jesse Berst, president of the Center for Smart Energy, a research and consulting firm in Redmond, Wash.: “I think it’s a lot easier to teach devices to be smart about energy than to teach people to be smart about energy. I don’t see people clustered around the warmth of the home energy management console.”

They might well start paying more attention when utilities begin introducing what is called “time of day” pricing. Since the smart grid lets utilities monitor electricity consumption in real time, they can start charging consumers higher prices when demand spikes and thus the cost of power rises.

In other words, if you set your air conditioner at arctic temperatures when all your neighbors are cranking up their units on a sweltering day, you’ll pay the price. The flip side is that your smart meter could tell your smart washing machine and dishwasher to delay switching on until power prices drop in the evening.

The smart grid offers Joe and Josephine Ratepayer other benefits as well. For instance, if a storm knocks out a power line, all the 1,500 homes on a typical Southern California Edison circuit served by that line will lose electricity. The utility usually doesn’t find out about such outages until customers call to complain. It can be hours before a repair crew can be dispatched and the problem located and fixed.

As part of its smart grid program, Southern California Edison will be installing sensors on the top of power poles to monitor the circuit. If a line goes down, sensors will reroute power to minimize the number of homes affected by a blackout. The sensors will also notify the utility of the problem and its location and the system will automatically dispatch a repair crew.

That means fewer people sitting in the dark.

Edison International’s Craver says that a grid with this kind of smarts could make a huge difference. “There’s such a high potential for change, and a perhaps pretty radical difference that will start to be created where the grid has a two-way communications capability, and some level of intelligence actually built into the system.”

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On Thursday in The New York Times, I write about an independent report that finds that PG&E’s smart meters are not responsible for higher utility bills incurred by some customers:

After Pacific Gas & Electric, the giant California utility, began installing smart meters in the state’s Central Valley, the company was swamped with complaints from residents that their utility bills had increased.

But an independent review of the smart meters released Thursday found that the devices were functioning properly and attributed the high charges to a heat wave last year that coincided with their installation as well as poor customer service by P.G.&.E.

“They are accurately recording usage and throughout our evaluation we found no systemic issues,” Stacey Wood, an executive with the Structure Group, a Houston consulting company, said on Thursday at a meeting of the California Public Utilities Commission. “We did identify there were weakness in the focus on customer service.”

The utilities commission hired the Structure Group to conduct test P.G.&.E’s smart meters and conduct a technical review.

The digital devices wirelessly transmit data on a home’s electricity and natural gas usage to utilities while allowing residents to monitor their electricity consumption in real time. Smart meters are considered a linchpin for the development of a smart power grid and tens of millions of the gadgets are set to be installed nationwide in coming years.

But the rollout has been anything but smooth in California, where nearly 10 million smart meters will be deployed.

“By the fall of 2009, the C.P.U.C. had received over 600 smart meter consumer complaints about ‘unexpectedly high’ bills and allegations that the new electric smart meters were not accurately recording electric usage, almost all of which were from P.G.&E.’s service area,” according to the Structure Report.

The consulting firm said it then tested more than 750 smart meters in the laboratory and in the field and reviewed utility account records for 1,378 customers, including those that had complained of abnormally high bills.

“Of the 613 smart meter field tests, 611 meters were successfully tested, and 100 percent passed average registration accuracy,” the report stated.

The study attributed some residents’ higher bills to a 2009 heat wave in Kern County as well as increased electricity usage due to new swimming pools or additions to their homes.

Then there was P.G.&E.’s handling of the controversy.

“P.G.&E. processes did not address the customer concerns associated with the new equipment and usage changes,” the report said. “Customer skepticism regarding the new advanced meter technology was not effectively addressed by P.G.&E. on a timely basis.”

You can read the rest of the story here.

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I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

No one said transforming the century-old power system into a state of-the-art digital smart grid was going to be easy. But California already is getting bogged down in a growing fight over installing smart utility meters in homes.

The wireless devices are a linchpin in building the smart grid as they allow the two-way, real-time transfer of data about a home’s power use. Utilities need that information to balance supply and demand on a power grid that will be increasingly supplied with intermittent sources of renewable energy while facing new demands from electric cars.

For homeowners, smart meters and an expected proliferation of smart refrigerators, dishwashers, and other appliances will help them keep a lid on rising electricity costs while making better use of rooftop solar panels.

But from the get-go, smart meters have raised a ruckus in California. First, residents in the state’s hot Central Valley complained that their utility bills spiked after the meters were installed last year.

Then in the San Francisco Bay Area, a small but vocal contingent has been arguing that smart meter antennas are a potential health threat. Never mind that every other person here seems to carry an iPhone, and many, if not most, homes in this tech-centric region boast wireless Internet routers that continuously transmit electromagnetic frequencies through the ether.

At first smart meters appeared to be a fringe issue — at the Fourth of July parade in the Marin County hippie beach enclave of Bolinas, I saw people holding up ban-the-smart-meter banners. But last week, I spotted similar homemade signs at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market. Meanwhile, the Marin towns of Fairfax and Novato have moved to ban smart meter installations; Santa Cruz County is considering doing the same.

Lost in all the hullabaloo is what a smart meter can do for managing your home’s carbon footprint. There are all kinds of gadgets and services coming down the pike that will let you control your electricity use from your phone and pinpoint the power hogs in your home. But even the most basic information provided by a smart meter is a big leap from a once-a-month bill.

My utility, PG&E, installed a smart meter at my house some months ago but just the other week began to let me monitor my electricity use on its website. If you want to geek out, you can really get granular by charting your power use hour-by-hour, pinpointing spikes and seeing how your lifestyle affects your energy consumption.

This morning, for instance, I learned that 21 days into the current billing cycle I’ve used $11 worth of electricity and that my projected total bill is between $15 and $20. My daily electricity use peaks around 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. and I’m using slightly fewer kilowatts than this time last year. I also set up an email alert to be sent if my electricity consumption kicks me into a more expensive rate tier.

And in the keeping down-with-the-Jones department, I learned that my energy use puts me at the very low end of the Berkeley spectrum.

All this provides valuable insight for the building of the green grid. But as with other efforts to transition to a renewable energy economy, overcoming political obstacles to the smart grid may be just as crucial as any technological triumph.

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photo: GE

In my Green State column on Grist on Thursday, I write about General Electric’s $200 million contest to find ideas and technologies to accelerate deployment of the smart grid:

Got a killer smart grid idea? General Electric has $200 million to spend.

Jeff Immelt, chief executive of the industrial conglomerate, flew into San Francisco to announce on Tuesday that GE was hooking up with prominent venture capital firms from Silicon Valley, the East Coast, and Europe to offer a supersized version of the X Prize for innovation. (GE and the participating venture capitalists are each contributing $100 million to the challenge.)

“We really believe this digital energy space is going to move fast and big as an economic proposition,” Immelt said before a hundred or so of Silicon Valley’s green tech elite who gathered for a lavish press event at the neo-classical Bently Reserve building in downtown San Francisco. “It also lays the groundwork for everything that needs to be done in an energy future, from nuclear to renewables.”

“GE can offer 50 to 60 percent of the solutions,” he added. “But the only way we can grow is by partnering with the venture community.”

And you too, Grist reader. GE will essentially crowdsource ideas, business plans, and potential startup acquisitions at a new site called Ecomagination Challenge: Powering the Grid. (“Ecomagination” is how GE brands its various environmental and green technology ventures and initiatives.)

Between now and September 30 you can submit ideas and vote on the best ones — the one scoring the most reader votes, and GE’s approval, wins $50,000. The company and its venture partners will award five other entries $100,000 each, which could lead to further equity investment.

A day into the smart grid challenge, ideas submitted from around the world range from wind farms on the Great Lakes to a proposal to “harness the energy from the Earth’s rotation.”

Now it’s doubtful that any startup entrepreneur worth her seed funding will risk floating  a potential multimillion-dollar idea for all to see. But GE’s partnership with venture capital firms such as Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Rockport Capital Partners — not to mention its use of social media to troll for innovative ideas — speaks to the challenges of building a smart grid.

First we need to define what a smart grid is. Comparing it to the Internet is a favored analogy. The current power transmission system is patchwork of early-to-mid 20th century technology that sends electricity from power plants to homes, offices, and factories. It’s essentially a one-way, analog system.

What Immelt calls “digital energy” will transform the power grid into a two-way, interactive system through the use of software, sensors, and other devices that allow utilities and grid operators to control and monitor energy use from the household level up, as well as get real-time data on electricity demand and supply. The various parts of the grid — transformers, substations, power lines — will communicate digitally, alerting operators, for instance, when a component has failed.

The ability to collect and analyze such grid data is crucial for the mass expansion of renewable energy. Most forms of green energy — solar and wind, for instance — are intermittent and increasingly decentralized; there are more than 31,000 rooftop solar installations in California alone.

To maximize renewable energy production and minimize greenhouse gas emissions, utilities and grid operators must be able to balance electricity being fed into the grid from tens of thousands of such sources along with energy from centralized fossil fuel power stations.

And in the coming years, utilities will need to know the location and charging status of tens of thousands of electric cars, each one automobile battery both a consumer and a potential provider of electricity. (If 100,000 cars plug in at 9 p.m. in California just as wind farms hit peak production, a utility will want to use that emission-free electricity to charge up emission-free vehicles rather than rely on, say, natural gas-fired power plants.)

You can read the rest of the column here.

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photo: Nissan

This post first appeared on Grist.

With the first mass-market electric cars set to hit California roads later this year, the state’s utilities have been working to ensure that early adopters – who tend to be clustered in places like Berkeley and Santa Monica – don’t overload neighborhood transformers and trigger local blackouts.

One way to do that is to encourage drivers not to plug in all at the same time, say when they arrive home from work and also crank up the air conditioning, is to set variable electricity rates that reward those who wait to charge until demand falls late at night or the wee hours of the morning.

What is unknown is whether such rates will actually change anyone’s behavior.

We’re about to find out. On Thursday, the California Public Utilities Commission approved a pilot project proposed by San Diego Gas & Electric to set variable rates for electric car charging.

“This information is critically important as we contemplate a future with widespread electric vehicle usage, given the additional electricity demand these vehicles create and the associated impacts on the grid,” Michael Peevey, the utilities commission president, said in a statement.

The project, which kicks off in January, will accompany the roll out of 1,000 Nissan Leaf electric cars in the San Diego area and the installation of home charging stations for each driver. Some 1,500 public charging stations will also be installed as well as 50 fast chargers that allow the cars’ batteries to be topped off in a matter of minutes rather than hours.

The San Diego effort is part of program backed by the United States Department of Energy called the EV Project that will put 5,700 Leafs and 2,600 Chevrolet Volts in garages in five states along with 14,650 charging stations and 310 fast chargers.

Under the plan greenlighted by California regulators on Thursday, San Diego Gas & Electric will bill Nissan Leaf drivers a range of rates, from a low of 7 cents a kilowatt/hour for summer “super off peak” charging to a high of 38 cents a kilowatt/hour during peak summer demand.

So will someone who has forked over $109,000 for a Tesla Roadster care about saving 31 cents a kilowatt hour? Probably not. What about the middle-of-the-road buyer of a $20,000 (after tax incentives) Nissan Leaf?

Maybe. But survey data that a California utility executive recently shared with me was not encouraging. Polling of likely electric car buyers showed that they were not particularly charged up about the prospect of saving money by delaying their EV gratification.

Another solution is smart charging. Drivers plug in when they get home but the charger communicates with the power grid to determine the optimal time to flip the switch.

That requires a smart grid and the California Public Utilities Commission on Thursday also approved a comprehensive plan to digitalize the state’s power system.

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