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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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In my latest Green State column for Grist, I take a look at AlertMe, a British startup that’s making a play to become a consumer brand for managing home energy use:

I’m sitting in a conference room at a PR agency on the San Francisco waterfront when the chief executive of AlertMe, a British energy management startup, pulls out his iPhone to check on a colleague’s kilowatt consumption back in the U.K.

The executive, who has the Vonnegutian name of Pilgrim Beart, taps the “history” icon on the screen. “I can see that his wife has arrived home,” he says before touching the energy button.

“They’re watching TV right now,” Beart notes, staring at the iPhone screen. “I could turn the TV off if I wanted to wind them up. I won’t do that. But I will turn off the microwave as no one is using it right now.”

He touches the screen and, voila, 5,300 miles away, the microwave blinks off, saving its owners a few pence and reducing the load on the grid by a watt.

All very cool. And a bit creepy.

Beart has a window into his colleague’s home life because the house is outfitted with AlertMe smart plugs that monitor appliances’ electricity use. Other gadgets track the home’s temperature. Key fobs carried by the homeowners keep tabs on their comings and goings so AlertMe’s software can adjust heating and cooling and turn appliances on and off to maximize energy efficiency.

Of course, Beart’s use of the iPhone as Big Brother was purely for demo purposes. In real life, AlertMe customers’ data remains anonymous. However, homeowners can monitor and control their electricity use on their smartphones.

AlertMe is one of a growing number of startups competing to help consumers cut their electricity use by providing real-time data and services to manage energy consumption. The company is backed by Silicon Valley and European venture capital firms, including VantagePoint Venture Partners, Good Energies, and Index Ventures.

What caught my attention is AlertMe’s strategy. Beart is attempting to build a consumer brand and he’s doing it without relying on digital smart meters, which utilities are slowly rolling out to provide real-time data on electricity use.

You can read the rest of the column here.

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photo: Todd Woody

IBM on Tuesday said it has signed  a deal to help build a smart grid for utility EnergyAustralia. Some 12,000 sensors will be installed on the Australian utility’s transmission network around Sydney to monitor electricity distribution and detect outages and other problems. It’s IBM’s largest smart grid project of its type to date.

Big Blue will build the software systems to integrate the sensor data into the operations of EnergyAustralia, which runs the country’s biggest electricity distribution network. In dollar terms, the deal is small – just A$3.2 million (U.S. $2.2 million) – but significant in showing the viability of transforming analog electricity distribution systems into an intelligent network, according to Michael Valocchi, an executive with IBM’s (IBM) global energy and utilities unit.

“The electricity distribution operator will have a real-time view of the network and will be able to pinpoint outages quickly and reduce their length,” Valocchi told Green Wombat. “What I really like about this deal is that it starts to show and harden the message that smart grid is much more than automated metering. As you see more distributed energy and renewable energy out there, this type of sensor and this type of intelligence on the grid will help manage that.”

The sensors will be placed mainly at EnergyAustralia’s substations and around transformers, Valocchi says.

IBM had previously rolled out a smaller version of the smart grid system in Denmark. And in February the tech giant announced a deal to build a smart utility and water system for the Mediterranean island nation of Malta.  While overseas utilities have been quicker to smarten up their analog power grids, Valocchi says the United States should not be far beyond, especially as federal stimulus money for smart grids begins to flow.

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google-powermeter

Google has become the utility of the digital age, something we click on as much as we flick on a light switch or turn on the water tap. Now the search giant is literally getting into the utility business with the development of smart grid software that gives consumers real-time information on their electricity consumption.

Called the PowerMeter, the prototype online dashboard is designed to download data from smart meters and display current electricity use and show how much power your refrigerator, big-screen television and other appliances are using at any point in time.

“We believe that by building a ‘smarter’ electricity grid, we can use the synergies of information and technology to give consumers better tools to track and reduce their energy use and, by doing so, save money and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” wrote engineering executive Bill Coughran and Dan Reicher, Google.org’s director of climate change and energy initiatives, in a filing Monday with the California Public Utilities Commission. “Down the road, consumers should have access to additional information such as the source and mix of their power.”

The Google (GOOG) executives urged California regulators to adopt policies to give consumers direct access to their real-time electricity usage in an open-source format. “The goal is to foster a thriving ecosystem of partners where third-parties develop and provide products to help consumers decrease and manage their energy demand and save money,” Coughran and Reicher wrote. “For example, a third-party could offer a service that analyzes a household’s electricity usage data, identifies inefficient appliances or practices in the home, and offers tips on how to reduce energy or provides special discounts on efficient appliances or electronic equipment.”

Utilities across the country are rolling out so-called smart meters that allow the real-time monitoring of electricity use, letting them charge variable rates depending on demand. The idea promoted by Google and other smart grid proponents is that once people become aware of how much electricity their various appliances and gadgets consume – and how much it costs them – they’ll start, say, running the dishwasher at night when electricity demand and rates are lower. That will help utilities cut their costs and over the long run avoid building new carbon-spewing power plants to meet peak demand.

Google’s move comes as the Obama administration pushes to upgrade the nation’s aging analog electricity grid, including $11 billion in the stimulus package for smart grid-related initiatives.

Google says PowerMeter, now being tested among Google employees, will be a free, open source application. “Google tool is only one of many ways to provide consumers with this information,” the company stated in its utilities commission filing. “Our primary goal is for consumers to get this information, whether through our tool or another source.”

It remains to be seen how the Google initiative affects the fortunes of startups like Tendril, Greenbox and others developing software and services for utilities to let their customers monitor their electricity consumption.

Google says it’s currently working with utilities and device makers. Green Wombat is waiting to hear back from Google on which ones, but a good bet would be General Electric (GE), which struck a partnership last year with the search giant to develop smart grid technology. Also likely on the list is PG&E (PCG), which has been collaborating with Google on plug-in hybrid electric car and vehicle-to-grid research.

Then there’s IBM (IBM), which has become the leading player integrating smart grid technology for utilities and managing the data produced by a digital power grid. (Big Blue last week announced it is building the world’s first nationwide smart grid for the Mediterranean island nation of Malta.)

So will Google PowerMeter save consumers money while saving the planet? That’s the early word from Google employees – not exactly the most neutral of sources – who’ve been testing the smart grid app, according to testimonials Google posted online.

“By monitoring my energy use, I figured out that the bulk of my electricity was caused by my two 20-year-old fridges, my incandescent lights and my pool pump, which was set to be on all the time,” wrote “Russ, hardware engineer.” “By replacing the refrigerators with new energy-efficient models, the lights with CFLs and setting the pool pump to only run at specified intervals, I’ve saved $3,000 in the past year and I am on track to save even more this year!”

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sunrise_powerlink_031506

Over the weekend The New York Times’ Matthew L. Wald had a sobering story on the not-inconsiderable challenges facing efforts to expand and upgrade the United States’ power grid to tap renewable energy from wind farms and solar power plants. Among them: Opposition to new high-voltage power lines from landowners and environmentalists, a Byzantine permitting process and fights over who pays the costs of transmission projects that span state lines.

Here in California, the ongoing controversy over the Sunrise Powerlink project is a case study in just how difficult it will be to build the infrastructure to transmit electricity from dozens of solar power plants planned for the Mojave Desert. Among the big companies looking to cash in on the solar land rush: Goldman Sachs (GS), Chevron (CVX) and FPL (FPL)

Utility San Diego Gas & Electric first proposed the $1.3 billion, 150-mile Sunrise Powerlink in 2005 to connect the coastal metropolis with remote solar power stations and wind farms in eastern San Diego County and the Imperial Valley. For instance, SDG&E’s contract to buy up to 900 megawatts of solar electricity from massive solar farms to be built by Stirling Energy Systems is dependent on the construction of the Sunrise Powerlink. Like California’s other big investor-owned utilities – PG&E (PCG) and Southern California Edison (EIX) – SDG&E, a unit of energy giant Sempra (SRE), is racing the clock to meet a state mandate to obtain 20% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2010 and 33% by 2020.

But Sunrise sparked opposition from the get-go as the utility proposed routing part of the transmission project through a pristine wilderness area of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.  The prospect of 150-foot-tall transmission towers marching through critical habitat for desert tortoises and other protected wildlife galvanized environmentalists well-versed in the arcane arts of regulatory warfare.

Opponents also painted the project as a Trojan horse to bring in cheap coal-fired power from Mexico. (Wald makes a similar point in his Times‘ piece – the same high-voltage lines designed to transmit green electricity from wind farms can also be used to send cheap carbon-intensive coal-fired electricity across the country.) That argument subsequently lost currency when regulators, citing California’s landmark global warming law, barred utilities from signing long-term contracts for out-of-state coal power.

After more than three years of hearings and procedural skirmishes culminating in an 11,000-page environmental impact report, a PUC administrative law judge last October issued a 265-page decision all but killing the project on environmental grounds. Whether SDG&E thought that green energy and climate change concerns would trump worries over wildlife and wilderness, it was clear that trying to build an industrial project through a state park was a costly mistake.

Then in December, after California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed an executive order to streamline and prioritize the licensing of renewable energy projects, the utilities commission’s board revived Sunrise Powerlink, approving a different route for the transmission lines that avoids Anza-Borrego.

But the fight is far from over. With the cost of the project now approaching $2 billion, late last month the Center for Biological Diversity, a Tucson, Ariz.-based environmental group, filed a suit in the California Supreme Court challenging the utilties commission’s approval of Sunrise Powerlink.

Safe to say, the battle will drag on for some time to come, giving new meaning to the term “stranded assets” for some would-be Big Solar developers.

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