Welcome to Smart Grid City, Colorado

  Boulder, Colo., is known for a lot of things, including the University of Colorado, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and a distinctive hippie-progressive-outdoorsy vibe. And now, it’s about to get the nation’s first fully-integrated “smart grid.”

A smart grid is exactly what it sounds like: an “intelligent” power grid that uses broadband technology to better manage multiple sources of electricity and increase energy efficiency. In August, Xcel plans to start installing the new smart grid with its 50,000 “smart meters” that will serve about 100,000 residents. Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy picked Boulder for the pilot because the Front Range city is medium-sized and environmentally conscious. It also offers research institutions like the University of Colorado and the National Bureau of Standards and Technology, which is already involved in smart-grid research for the federal government.

Kara Mertz, assistant to the city manager in Boulder, explains that the smart grid will employ a fiber-optic loop around the city. That network will allow communication between households, the utility company and the grid about the amount and source of power in use. The system can also regulate itself. If there’s a power overload in one part of the grid, for example, it will automatically route power through different lines to prevent a shutdown. In addition, a smart grid allows a consumer to choose the power sources she wants to use – wind, solar, or coal.

The system will help consumers make more energy-efficient choices and utilize more renewable energy resources, says Ethnie Groves, spokeswoman for Xcel. “If consumers can see what their households are using on a daily basis, they’ll be better able to track their own usage and figure out ways to save money or be more efficient,” she says.

Smart meters allow consumers to adjust their home power usage automatically. “Basically,” Mertz says, “if you have a ‘smart’ appliance or a little conversion box on your outlet to work with older appliances, the smart grid can talk directly to those appliances … you can turn your dishwasher on from a distance so it runs during non-peak hours, for example.” In addition, says Mertz, the system can store power in battery stations around the city, from which consumers can draw during non-peak hours, and customers “can put power back into the grid from (their) own solar panels.”

Smart-grid technologies have been employed in other U.S. cities. In 2005, CenterPoint Energy in Houston installed 10,000 smart meters in customers’ houses. A smart-grid project exists in Dallas as well, and Pacific Northwest National Laboratories tested smart-grid technologies in 300 households in Washington state in 2006. And Pacific Gas and Electric is planning the country’s largest smart-meter initiative: Over the next five years, PG&E; hopes to upgrade more than 10 million customer meters in Northern and Central California.

The cost of Boulder’s pilot system is estimated at around $100 million. To help offset that price tag, Xcel Energy established the Smart Grid Consortium last December, bringing together engineering firms, business leaders and IT experts.

“We’re planning to work very closely with Xcel throughout this process,” Mertz says. “We’ll really push them to figure out how to maximize the potential of this system.” According to Mertz, the city has committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. With the projected energy efficiency of a smart grid, “We could meet 25 percent of our goal,” she says. “And I’m vying to be one of the test homes.”

The author is an intern for High Country News.
High Country News Classifieds
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • FEATURES DIRECTOR - HIGH COUNTRY NEWS
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Features Director to join our editorial...
  • GENERAL MANAGER
    The Board of UYWCD seeks a new GM to manage operations & to implement our robust strategic plan. Details at www.upperyampawater.com. EOE
  • IN TUCSON, FOR SALE: A BEAUTIFUL, CLASSIC MID-CENTURY MODERN HOME
    designed by architect David Swanson in 1966. Located a block from Saguaro National Forest, yet minutes to Downtown and the UofA campus, 3706 sqft, 6...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Friends of the San Juans is seeking a new leader guide our efforts to protect and restore the San Juan Islands and the Salish...
  • 80 ACRES
    straddles North Platte Fishery, Wyoming. Legal access 2 miles off 1-80. Call 720-440-7633.
  • IMPROVED LOT
    Private road, hillside, views. Well, pad, septic, 99 sq.ft. hut. Dryland permaculture orchard. Wildlife. San Diego--long growing season
  • UNIQUE INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITY
    Profitable off-the-grid business located 2 miles from Glacier National Park. Owner has 6 years operating experience. Seeking investor or partner for business expansion and enhancement....
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...