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Posts Tagged ‘smart grid’

malta-smart-grid

Photo: Visit Malta

The Mediterranean island nation of Malta on Wednesday unveiled a deal with IBM to build a “smart utility” system that will digitize the country’s electricity grid and water system.

Granted, Malta is a microstate with a population of 403,500 (smaller than Sacramento; bigger than Iceland). But the world — and utility infrastructure giants like General Electric (GE) — will be watching closely. Not only is Malta the first country to green its national grid but it will also serve as a test case for whether integrating so-called smart technologies into both electricity and water systems can help mitigate the increasing deleterious effects of global warming on the island.

As with other island states, power and water are intricately linked on Malta. All of the archipelago’s electricity is generated from imported fuel oil while the country depends on energy-intensive desalinization plants for half its water supply. Meanwhile, rising sea levels threaten its underground freshwater supplies.

“About 55% of the cost of water on Malta is related to electricity – it’s a pretty staggering amount,” Guido Bartels, general manager of IBM’s Global Energy & Utilities Industry division, told Green Wombat from Malta on Tuesday.

So how can digitizing the grid help? IBM (IBM) and its partners will replace Malta’s 250,000 utility meters with interactive versions that will allow Malta’s electric utility, Enemalta, to monitor electricity use in real-time and set variable rates that reward customers that cut their power consumption.  As part of the $91 million (€70 million) project, a sensor network will be deployed on the grid  –  along transmission lines, substations and other infrastructure – to provide information that will let the utility more efficiently manage electricity distribution and detect potential problems. IBM will provide the software that will aggregate and analyze all that data so Enemalta can identify opportunities to reduce costs – and emissions from Malta’s carbon-intensive power plants. (For an excellent primer on smart grids, see Earth2Tech editor Katie Fehrenbacher’s recent story.)

A sensor network will also be installed on the water system for Malta’s Water Services Corporation. “They’ll indicate where there is water leakage and provide better information about the water network,” says Robert Aguilera, IBM’s lead executive for the Malta project, which is set to be completed in 2012. “The information that will be collected by the system will allow the government to make decisions on how to save money on water and electricity consumption.”

Cutting the volume of water that must be desalinated would, of course, reduce electricity use in the 122-square-mile (316-square-kilometer) nation.

With the U.S. Congress debating an economic stimulus package that includes tens of billions of dollars for greening the power grid, IBM sees smart grid-related technologies as a $126 billion market opportunity in 2009. That’s because what’s happening in Malta today will likely be the future elsewhere – no country is an island when it comes to climate change. Rising electricity prices and water shortages are afflicting regions stretching from Australia to Africa to California.

IBM spokeswoman Emily Horn says Big Blue has not yet publicly identified which companies will be providing the smart meters, software and other services for the Malta grid project.

Malta’s greenhouse gas emissions are expected to rise 62% above 1990 levels by 2012, according to the European Environment Agency, and as a member of the European Union the country will be under pressure to cut its carbon. A smart energy grid will help but Malta, like Hawaii and other island states, will have to start replacing carbon-intensive fuel oil with renewable energy.

The island could present opportunities for other types of smart networks. According to the Maltese government, Malta has the second-highest concentration of cars in the world, with 660 vehicles per square kilometer. That also contributes to the country’s dependence on imported oil and its greenhouse gas emissions.

Given that Silicon Valley company Better Place has described islands as the ideal location to install its electric car charging infrastructure, perhaps CEO Shai Agassi should be looking at adding Malta to the list of countries that have signed deals with the startup.

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tendril

In case you missed it, this Green Wombat story appears in the current issue of Fortune.

A house that thinks

The high-tech networks that Reliant Energy is installing in the homes of its 1.8 million customers will help them save electricity.

By Todd Woody, senior editor

(Fortune Magazine) — Inside a white-brick house nestled in Houston’s leafy Montrose neighborhood, a gray handheld video display sits on the living room coffee table. But this is no ordinary remote control. Called the Insight and made by Tendril, a Boulder startup, the device communicates wirelessly with the home’s utility meter, letting you track real-time information about the cost of the electricity you consume.

The house is actually a demonstration project set up by Reliant Energy (RRI), a reseller of electricity with $12 billion a year in sales. Glen Stancil, Reliant’s vice president for smart energy R&D, taps the Insight’s screen. “Right now we’re spending $1.40 per hour,” he says, noting that the electricity prices and usage are updated every ten seconds. (Customers can also access the same data on the web or their iPhones.)

Stancil presses another button. “The bill so far is $86, and for the month it looks like it’s headed to $367,” he says. The Insight system also warns that you’ll fork over another $100 this month if you crank up the air conditioner a couple of notches. So keep your hands off the thermostat.

That’s just the kind of behavior that Reliant Energy CEO Mark Jacobs would like to see. Until now, Reliant has made its money by entering contracts with utilities for a fixed amount of power at a fixed price and then reselling it to its 1.8 million customers. If demand unexpectedly soars on a hot afternoon as everyone turns up the air conditioning, Reliant often must buy extra power on the spot market, where prices can spike as much as 60%.

That cuts into profits. “It’s like running a beachfront hotel, charging the same room rate all year round, and then building more rooms to guarantee that everyone has a room on the busiest weekends,” says Jacobs.

In November, Reliant started installing the Insight in homes, which means it will be able to pass along those high spot prices to its customers, or better yet, in sweltering Texas, let customers buy a month’s worth of cool at a set price – say, 72 degrees for $200 or 74 degrees for $160.

The Insight offers another advantage – Jacobs believes it will encourage his customers to cut back on electric use and save money. “What if you knew you could run your clothes dryer at five o’clock, and it would cost $3,” says Jacobs, “or you could wait until eight o’clock at night, and it would be only a dollar?”

PG&E (PCG), Southern Edison International (EIX) and other utilities are rolling out smart meters but have yet to to integrate them with smart energy systems for the home. But Reliant operates in a competitive, deregulated electricity market. If homeowners get cool technology that helps them avoid the unpleasant surprise of a big electric bill, Jacobs believes Reliant will retain more customers. And then there’s the green angle. “We as an industry are the single largest emitter of greenhouse gas, and our goal is to help our customers use less, spend less, and emit less,” says Jacobs.

For Jacobs, a 46-year-old Goldman Sachs (GS) veteran, smart energy technology is just the wedge to shake up what he calls “an industry in the Dark Ages” while opening new markets for his company, whose stock has been walloped by the one-two punch of Houston’s Hurricane Ike and the credit crunch.

Hurdles, however, remain. Will consumers already suffering from information overload want to obsessively monitor their electricity habit? Will a sweating Houstonite on a 104-degree day say to hell with the cost and crank up the AC anyway? Jacobs isn’t worried. He believes nothing influences behavior better than knowing the true price of what you’re buying.

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The wind, solar and geothermal industries have wasted no time pressing the incoming Obama administration to implement an alternative energy agenda to spur investment and create jobs.

During a conference call Thursday, the leaders of the Solar Energy Industries Association, American Wind Energy Association and other trade groups lobbied for a plethora of legislation and policy initiatives. None of these proposals are new, but given Barack Obama’s campaign promises to promote alternative energy and the strengthened Democratic majority in Congress, the industry has the best chance in many years of seeing this wish list made real.

  • A five-year extension of the production tax credit for the wind industry (it currently has to be renewed every year) to remove uncertainty for investors.
  • A major infrastructure program to upgrade the transmission grid so wind, solar and geothermal energy can be transmitted from the remote areas where it is produced to major cities. Obama advisor Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google (GOOG), recently joined with General Electric (GE) chief Jeff Immelt to launch a joint initiative to develop such smart grid technology as well as push for policy changes in Washington to allow the widespread deployment of renewable energy by rebuilding the nation’s transmission system.
  • Impose a national “renewable portfolio standard” that would mandate that utilities obtain a minimum 10% of their electricity from green sources by 2012 and at least 25% by 2020. Two-thirds of the states currently impose variations of such requirements.
  • Mandate that the federal government – the nation’s single largest consumer of electricity – obtain more energy from renewable sources.
  • Enact a cap-and-trade carbon market.

“If the administration and Congress can quickly implement these policies, renewable energy growth will help turn around the economic decline while at the same time addressing some of our most pressing national security and environmental problems,” the green energy trade groups said in a joint statement.

No doubt those measures are crucial to spurring development of renewable energy and creating green collar jobs. But the major obstacle confronting the alt energy industry right now is the credit crunch that is choking off financing for big wind and solar projects and scaring away investors from more cutting-edge but potentially promising green technologies.

A focus by President Obama and Congress on restoring confidence in the financial system will most likely do the most for green investment as well as restore luster to battered renewable energy stocks like First Solar (FSLR), SunPower (SPWRA) and Suntech (STP).

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