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Peering beyond the meter in the smart grid

Consulting company is showing a miniature version of Boulder's SmartGridCity program, offering a peek into how consumers can manage their home energy.

BOSTON--Even the most enthusiastic supporter of the smart grid realizes that there's a limit to how much consumers want to actively manage energy use. Instead, most consumers would rather just "set it and forget it," much like they do with programmable thermostats.

Consulting company Accenture on Wednesday here opened the doors to a trailer that serves as a smart-grid demonstration, modeled on the experience of Xcel Energy's SmartGridCity program in Boulder, Colo. Giving consumers more awareness of their energy consumption through an energy monitor or Web site, as is the case with the Boulder pilot, should help people save money and lighten their environmental footprint with relatively simple changes to behavior.

But getting a feel for the nuts and bolts of the grid at the demo reminded me that the smart grid is more than two-way meters and pie charts showing how much appliances consume each day. Equally important is the level of automation that computer technologies can add at the edges of the grid and in people's homes.

A look at the home energy management system used by Xcel Energy's smart grid program in Boulder, Colo. In addition to providing more visibility into utility bills, the system also allows consumers to program and remotely control appliances, lighting, and heating and cooling systems (see control screen on left). Martin LaMonica/CNET

The transmission grid--the long-distance power lines that carry high-voltage current--is pretty smart already since it has sensors and can, in general, automatically react to trouble spots, said Brian Martin, a partner at Accenture's smart-grid services program, during my visit. What needs more automation and computer-aided intelligence is the distribution grid, where electricity goes from substations and pole-mounted transformers and is routed into people's homes.

For example, a drop in voltage on a line, what could be called "low-quality power," could mean flickering lights or that a residence won't be able to run many power-hungry appliances at once. One way to address that problem is through smart meters, which can monitor the voltage and send signals to equipment at substations to boost voltage, Martin explained.

Automation plays out within the home as well in the vision of the smart grid. With smart meters and other energy management devices, some Boulder residents in the pilot can control their homes' appliances and mechanical systems over the Internet. For example, a consumer could decide to put the heat on in the bedrooms from a smartphone while on the way home.

In the long turn, these sorts of control features are what will appeal to consumers, more than providing very detailed information on their usage, said Sander van 't Noordende, group chief executive of Accenture's Resources Operating Group.

"The challenge on the consumer side is consumer behavior. Frankly, I'm not that interested in looking at my utility bill on the computer and watching it very closely--the fun wears off pretty quickly," he said.

In the future, smart-grid tools will be used to create a home energy profile, much the way people buy mobile phone plans to match their usage pattern. Consumers could program heating and cooling as they do now. But smart meters and networked appliances allow for new efficiency services, such as agreeing to turn up the air conditioner thermostat when the grid is stressed in exchange for rebates or cheaper rates.

"So you install it once and the system in your home automatically does what you need it to do," van 't Noordende said. He predicts that smart meters will become like PCs or mobile phones: at first consumers weren't sure they needed them, but over time they have become widespread.

Data overload
For all the technical promise of the smart grid, though, there are serious challenges that have little to do with consumer involvement in managing energy.

The Xcel Energy smart-grid program, in fact, has come under scrutiny from regulators because of ballooning costs. The Boulder Camera newspaper on Saturday reported that the construction costs--largely related to laying the fiber optic cables required to carry more data between utilities and customers--have grown from an anticipated $15.3 million almost two years ago to $42.1 million, raising questions over how the trial will affect utility bills.

Like Xcel Energy, utilities across the country are grappling with the question of how to recoup the costs of smart grid investments. There are a number of benefits to the smart grid, including faster responses to outages, more efficient uses of energy resources, and increased use of wind and solar power. But justifying investments is tricky because the benefits are shared across different parties--power generators, utilities, and individual consumers, said van 't Noordende.

In practice, the smart-grid trials, some of which are co-funded by the Department of Energy, reflect regulators' goals, said Martin. For example, some regulations are focused on reducing consumers' electricity use to avoid building new power plants and transmissions lines. Others, meanwhile, prioritize integrating large-scale solar and wind farms into the grid or boosting distributed generation through rooftop solar, he said.

On the technical side, one of the biggest challenges facing utilities is the deluge of data that a smarter grid produces. Controllers and sensors along the grid are being installed to gather data in order to avoid outages. Appliances, such as hot water heaters and dishwashers, can also become information sources, sharing information with smart meters to go into low-energy mode, for example, during peak times.

In smart grid programs, such as Xcel Energy's Boulder trial, Accenture has found that making sense of all the data is a big challenge for utilities. "Utility people are usually good with the power equipment, but they struggle with how to get a handle on all the data," said Martin.