WisBusiness: Expert touts savings in ‘smart grid’

By Brian E. Clark

The nation’s utilities and their customers could save more than $70 billion over the next two decades if they took advantage of so-called “smart grid” technologies to reduce and control power use, according to an expert from the Department of Energy’s Northwest Labs in Washington State.

Speaking at a Wisconsin Public Utility Institute Conference on the UW-Madison campus Tuesday, Don Hammerstrom said the key to saving power, reducing the threat of blackouts and the need to build more power plants is to apply computer and information technology to the grid.

The event was attended by more than 100 utility executives, telecommunications officials and a few consumer and environmental advocates.

Hammerstrom said California and the Canadian province of Ontario are already adapting advanced technology to control their power systems. He predicted the widespread use of smart meters, thermostats and even appliances that can shut themselves high power surges.

A self-described “widget” geek, Hammerstrom said his agency set up successful energy use reduction programs in Washington State that used some relatively simple technology on household driers to save power and money for consumers.

He said not all smart grid advances need to use sophisticated two-way communication between homes, businesses and utilities.

Michael Lamb, an executive with Xcel Energy, said his utility is embarking on a
“Smart City” project in Boulder, Co. this summer.

Lamb said the $100 million project will up equip up to 15,000 homes with smart power meters to help people reduce demand when electricity is most expensive. Substations will also use information from the meters to automatically reroute power when problems arise.

Among its other benefits, the project should help Boulder residents take better advantage of renewable power sources.

Charlie Higley, head of the Citizens Utility Board (CUB), said his consumer group looks forward to seeing what savings could result from adaption of smart grid technologies in Wisconsin.

“But a lot needs to happen, I’m afraid, before it will make any major impact here,” he said. “Still, it has a lot of potential.”

John Nesbitt, an official with We Energies, said his company is already using information technology to limit outages in its grid.

But he, too, said the kind of widespread savings some experts are predicting may be well off in the future. And he said the start-up costs could be expensive.

“At this point, the whole concept of the smart grid isn’t well enough defined for me,” he said somewhat skeptically. “You have to look at it in terms of benefits and costs. Ultimately, that will be born by the rate payers.”