Utilities start massive upgrade of region’s grid

‘Smart’ meters 1st step in plan to save on energy

By Stephen Singer
Associated Press / April 25, 2010

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HARTFORD — Power companies in New England are beginning work on a nearly half-billion-dollar plan to upgrade the region’s electric grid to make way for appliances that can shut down to reduce electric bills, improve energy conservation, and connect to wind and solar energy.

The first step is replacing decades-old meters with so-called smart meters that detail the use of computers, appliances, TVs, lights, and other household equipment.

The new meters — the front line of plans for an advanced electricity grid — communicate with utilities and can respond to constantly changing energy prices. Customers will be able to respond to electricity prices in real time and shut down appliances to save money. Utilities can offer better rates as incentives for using appliances in off-peak hours.

In the future, appliances may even be able to respond to price signals and shut down automatically.

“Smart meters allow us to see what’s going on in the system and allow customers to see what they’re using, when they’re using it and what the cost is,’’ said Robert V. Jolly Jr., general manager of Marblehead Municipal Light Department, a municipally owned power company in Marblehead, Mass.

Michael Sachse, senior director of government affairs and general counsel at OPOWER, an Arlington, Va., software company that helps utilities meet efficiency goals, said utilities must show their customers the benefits of upgraded electricity measurement.

“Just giving people a lot of data is not going to be particularly useful because the truth is that while no one wants to waste electricity and no one wants to pay higher electric and gas bills, people have busy lives and don’t have time to analyze electric bills,’’ he said.

The federal government’s push for an upgraded power grid in the United States will lead to changes comparable to transformations brought about by the personal computer, said Allen Stamp, a Vermont utility official.

Stamp, program manager for smart grid deployment at Vermont Transco, said a modernized power grid is “really about the consumer being empowered to save dollars.

“One person described it as an Internet dot-com mentality coming into use with the electric power system,’’ he said. “It’s a fundamental change.’’

The US Department of Energy has awarded $230 million in federal stimulus funding — matched by the recipients — to New England utilities, municipal power companies, private companies, and a cooperative that are installing new meters. Companies have three years to complete the projects.

About $4 billion is being spent nationally on modernizing electricity grids.

Power companies will benefit by seeing patterns of electricity that show when less capacity is required, leading to reduced transmission costs and eliminating the need to build power plants. In addition, the new meters will identify outages.

Stimulus money for New England’s projects ranges from $800,000 to write software to monitor weather for wind power on Cape Cod to nearly $96 million to install about 600,000 meters in Maine.

At least 1 million customers in the region will be affected. Only some companies are participating; Rhode Island was the only state in New England where power companies did not receive federal money.

Stamp, of Vermont Transco, said the new grid will help make electric vehicles more broadly available and generate electricity closer to where it is used to reduce energy lost in transmission.

“We’re just starting to begin figuring out where it will take us,’’ he said.

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