Thomas White Global Investing
Green Reports

November 25, 2009

The Green Report

Smart Grids to Modernize U.S. Homes
US smart grids

The scene unfolds like a frame from a futuristic Hollywood movie in the year 2020. A power outage in the neighborhood gets registered a half an hour before distress reports from residents. An overloaded transformer, badly in need of replacement, is noted well in advance of failure. These are nothing short of technical dreams come true and they have become a reality in Boulder, Colorado, where the first functional smart grid system in the U.S. is now located. Xcel Energy, a major U.S. electricity and natural gas company, has been working on the “SmartGridCity,” a $100 million smart grid technology project in Boulder. Partially switched on in September this year, the newly installed smart grid has reduced customer complaints related to voltage fluctuations from 70 in 2007 to zero so far this year.

Smart grid technology is gaining momentum after its advantages have been proven in an age of growing climate concerns. A smart grid uses digital technology to control electrical appliances and regulate the energy used, preventing waste, reducing costs and increasing reliability. It allows the utility to better monitor and regulate the electrical grid using real-time monitoring and data feedback. With this, utilities can more rapidly adjust to equipment failures, power outages and other electrical problems. Individuals, through the use of ‘smart meters’ can access information on their own energy consumption, enabling a family to keep a closer watch on their electricity use by the month, week or even hour.

Smart grid technology has been in use for a few years now. The earliest, and still largest, example of a smart grid system is in Pisa, Italy, completed in 2005. Italy’s Telegestore project is widely regarded as the first commercial scale use of smart grid technology aimed for individual residents, registering annual savings of around $747 million.

However, the U.S. is fast catching up. Analysis by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) in the U.S. observes that smart grid technologies will reduce electricity use by more than 4% by 2030, saving $20 billion in customer costs and cutting greenhouse gas emissions. In October 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama announced $3.4 billion in government grants to improve the efficiency of the country’s electrical transmission network. The grants, ranging from $400,000 to $200 million, will be specifically targeted at developing smart grid technologies, which will also harness solar and wind energy.

The U.S. government zeroed in on a list of 100 companies and communities in 45 states that will receive federal subsidies to modernize the electric grid with the administration promising “tens of thousands of jobs.” The Department of Energy calculates that the grants should enable the installation of at least 18 million smart meters, which should bring the nation’s total to about 40 million, or enough to cover 31% of U.S. housing units.

The European Union and Asia are not far behind. The EU Energy Package, which came into force in September 2009, welcomed the inclusion of smart meters across Europe. The goal is to enable 80% of European households with smart electricity meters by 2020 and to achieve a complete rollout by 2022. The Nordic countries are at the forefront of this effort, with Finland and Sweden already working on building up smart grids. In Sweden, a joint development project to design and install Europe’s first large-scale urban smart electricity grid is well ahead in progress. In Asia, Singapore has already initiated a project to test smart grid systems.

However, criticism dogs even the best solutions. The smart grid is not infallible, with critics expressing concerns about its vulnerability to hackers. Experts comment that once in the system, a hacker could easily gain control of millions of meters and shut them off simultaneously. A hacker might also find ways to tamper with power flow causing a blackout. Others are skeptical about the sheer magnitude of the whole plan saying that Obama’s grants only scratch the surface, and noting that hundreds of billions of dollars instead may be needed. With 3,000 utilities spread across the country, the present funding would still not cover millions of consumers.

But George W. Arnold, coordinator for Smart Grid Interoperability at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) thinks differently, “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rewire America and rejuvenate one of our most critical infrastructures.” And in Boulder, Colorado, a bustling family of six in a middle-income neighborhood has already recognized that being smart about energy makes all the difference.




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