Benefits of a 'Smart' Power Grid

Apr 29 - The Miami Herald
> When Kevin Linn of Coral Springs, Fla., received a special power
> meter last October, he was able to check his usage day by day and hour
> by hour via the Internet. He found spikes in midday when no one was
> home-the water heater was churning away. And he discovered his pool
> pump was costing more than $50 a month.
> He adjusted the water heater to operate only from 5 to 7 a.m.
> and 8 to
> 10 p.m., the times his family of four needed hot water. He swapped the
> pool pump for a more efficient model. So far, FPL records show that
> he's saving about $13 a month, but Linn reports, "My bills are $100 a
> month less than my neighbors'."
> Linn's experience may be what awaits residents of Miami-Dade
> County, all of whom are expected to get smart meters in the next two
> years as part of an ambitious project by Florida Power & Light to
> create what Miami Mayor Manny Diaz has called "the first truly
> smart-grid city in the nation."
> The grid concept thrills few voters, but many leaders say it can
> save consumers money and help combat man-made climate change because
> the fastest and cheapest way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to
> use less electricity.
> President Barack Obama's economic stimulus package includes $4.5
> billion to finance such smart grids nationwide. FPL hopes that up to
> half of the $200 million it plans to spend on the Miami-Dade project
> could be financed through stimulus funds.
> "The devil's in the details," said Stephen Smith, executive
> director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "If smart meters
> lead to smart consumers, that's a very good thing . . . But most
> utilities are more interested in getting people off peak power, not
> necessarily reducing their overall usage."
> Indeed, a future phase of the smart grid will warn consumers that
> the peak period, usually 3 to 6 p.m. in the summer, means more
> expensive power for the utility and that expense could be passed along
> to the customer.
> But that phase is still down the road. "The transition to smart
> grid is an evolution," said FPL spokesman Scott Blackburn. Over time,
> "the grid will become more like an intelligent, interactive Internet
> and less a passive, one-way power system."
> The first step, already tried in a pilot project of 100,000 homes
> in northern Broward, is to install the smart meters.
> A wireless chip in the meter transmits usage to the Web.
> Residents can
> use their computers the next day to check their power consumption hour
> by hour. Over time, they can study, like the Linn family, what their
> power usage is, and make adjustments to save money.
> For some families, that may be easier said than done. Many
> Americans love their gadgets and are loath to abandon them. FPL
> reports that over the past two decades, despite many energy-efficient
> appliances entering the market, usage per customer increased by 20
> percent. Computers in so- called "sleep mode," cellphone chargers,
> DVRs constantly on-all of these soak up power.
> Only during the recession has that usage taken a small drop.
> Linn notes that his Coral Springs neighbors have smart meters
> too, but they don't seem to be paying much attention to their usage.
> His bill is generally $100 a month less than theirs, though they live
> in similar houses.
> On average, FPL reports, when consumers nationwide get smart
> meters, their usage drops about 5 percent per month.
> In a second phase for a smart grid, homes will eventually get
> "eco-panels" that will be able to control and time many "smart
> appliances"
> within a house. The key here is minimizing usage during peak periods,
> when electricity is more costly to FPL than during the rest of the
> day.
> At some point, FPL may join other utilities in other parts of the
> country by charging customers different rates at different periods of
> the day, based on FPL's costs. Blackburn said that means power bills
> would be more like cellphone bills, with peak and off-peak pricing.
> "The best example is the dishwasher. You don't always need your
> dishes washed right away. So you could set it to run at 3 in the
> morning,"
> said FPL
> spokesman Mark Bubriski.
> The choice would be the consumers, who could set their appliances
> the way they wanted and pay accordingly.
> The eco-panels could have many uses. One possibility: You leave
> for vacation and remember you forgot to turn off the kitchen lights.
> With the
> proper application, you could do so via a cellphone.
> Other parts of the grid will also become smarter and more
> efficient-including substations and transformers. Getting feedback
> from these devices as well as the smart meters, FPL engineers will be
> able to detect potential problems before they occur-or fix them more
> quickly when something goes wrong.
> Smith, the Clean Energy leader, said he knows that reducing
> electricity during peak periods can save money for utilities-and
> eventually customers-"but if they're just shifting usage to 3 a.m.,
> that doesn't have that much environmental benefit," in reducing
> greenhouse gases.
> He is concerned that, because the existing pricing system causes
> FPL to earn bigger profits the more electricity it sells, the utility
> may pay lip service to conservation of energy without really pushing
> it hard.
> At a news conference earlier this month, a Bloomberg News
> reporter asked Lew Hay, FPL Group's chief executive, if it made
> business sense for him to want to reduce consumer revenue. Hay
> responded his goal was to "do the right thing" for his customers and
> the environment.