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Know the West

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.