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Advocate: Smart grid would ‘empower' users

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  • Many WV coal counties losing revenue

    Many WV coal counties losing revenue

    Monday, August 8 2016 10:15 AM EDT2016-08-08 14:15:05 GMT

    As Appalachian coal production continues its drastic decline, West Virginia’s coal-producing counties are  not only losing people as lifelong residents are forced to flee their homes in order to find work, but in many cases, they’re also relinquishing millions of dollars from their budgets.

    As Appalachian coal production continues its drastic decline, West Virginia’s coal-producing counties are  not only losing people as lifelong residents are forced to flee their homes in order to find work, but in many cases, they’re also relinquishing millions of dollars from their budgets.

Where electricity comes from is not something many tend to think about, but new technology could give consumers incentive to pay more attention.

The umbrella term "smart grid" is the name for a number of technologies, equipment, systems and concepts that equip the aging grid system with the ability to communicate. By sending data about energy use, availability, source and other crucial data, the consumer becomes a part of how the grid operates instead of a mere receiver of energy. 

"The biggest benefit is empowerment," said Patty Durand, executive director of the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative. "It includes empowerment of the consumer to take control over their energy expenditures. Right now, consumers have no idea what their electricity bill is going to be when it comes. When it does come, they don't know what went into the numbers they have to pay."

In addition to cost savings, a smart grid allows for an infrastructure that is "aware" of faults and outages. Dan Delurey, head of the Demand Response and Smart Grid Coalition, said a smart grid could potentially reroute power to places that otherwise may have experienced outages or assist by simply identifying problem areas more quickly.

While the smart grid does enable better use of renewable energy sources and they often are discussed in tandem, it's not about a different type of energy. The smart grid is about using energy more efficiently and at the best times — in other words, "smarter." 

"A smart grid is full integration of communications, control and automation of the electric grid, from generation, transmission, distribution to consumption in conjunction with distributed energy resources," said Parviz Famouri, a professor at West Virginia University. "The main advantages are efficiency, reliability, sustainability and resiliency of the electric grid."

Some of the smart grid technology is being developed in West Virginia. For example, Famouri and his colleagues at the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources are working on a project to overcome one of the major hurdles of smart grid technology. 

While the smart grid allows elements of the grid to communicate, Famouri said researchers at WVU are working to get everyone speaking the same language.

"It is important for various vendors who are developing new smart devices to have a standard communication protocol so devices can communicate with each other and with the grid in a seamless fashion," Famouri said. 

Not an Enemy of Coal

WVU researchers also are working with Monongahela Power to develop the Super Circuit project, a grid that detects faults and automates response. Other work includes the development of energy storage and technology that allows vehicles to be not only powered at home, but also to operate as batteries when the home loses power from the grid. 

All the talk about batteries, electric vehicles and other new fuels leads some to believe the smart grid is another project out to reduce fossil fuel's share of the power pie. Not so, said Famouri.

A smart grid can be used to reduce a power grid's footprint, primarily through more efficient use, but it can be used in conjunction with any source of electricity.

"One thing that people and legislators of West Virginia must be cognizant of is that a smart grid is not all about renewable energy and no coal," Famouri said. "Coal will be a major player in producing electric energy for the foreseeable future. A smart grid can be an enabler for new technologies, such as electric vehicles, that transform the use of energy from imported petroleum oil to domestic coal and natural gas."

Fighting a potential perception that the smart grid is another enemy of coal could be crucial. That's because there is a cost associated with smart grid deployment and up front, Famouri said, the government could be a partner in promoting the technology.

"The (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) was a boost to fund utilities in installing a number of smart meters across the country and to demonstrate various smart grid related projects which utilities would not have done on their own," Famouri said. "Furthermore, legislative mandates force industry to move forward, deploy new technologies and consumers most likely see the benefit."

Besides, Durand said, it's going to take interest at all levels to move the smart grid along.

"Recycling wasn't just left to the landfill companies to do," she said. "Everyone got together and decided this was beneficial to the community and an education campaign happened."

Consumer: Why Should I Care?

The conversation about the smart grid isn't limited to academics, power generators or politicians. The smart grid gives users the flexibility to monitor and adjust electricity usage to snag a better price on electricity. 

"As an example, part of a smart grid will eventually include dynamic pricing of electricity which means price of electricity will change with time of the day and time of the year," Famouri said. "The price will be lower when the demand is low and higher when the demand is high. This will give choice and flexibility to the consumer — say, when they want to use washing and dryer machines in their home. In the middle of a hot summer day the price will be more expensive than in early morning."

The smart grid allows the consumer of electricity to decide, either manually or automatically, to use electricity at times when power costs less. 

"When you have only supply resources available to the grid, then you have a higher-cost price of electricity than otherwise," DeLaurey said. "Part of what a smart grid allows is demand deductions and energy efficiency options to be bid into the system as if they were generating power plants."

Utilities benefit too. Having users that better manage their electricity usage aids utilities in better controlling loads during peak demand periods. 

So why not implement a smart grid? The biggest hurdle is cost and determining standard protocols.

"You have to make investment in the grid, and that requires an upfront cost," Delurey said. "Any time a utility makes an investment and it's approved by regulators, then consumers have to pay for that in some way. … We are talking about a capital investment. In some places, people view this as not the time to make those investments — to which those of us trying to do this say ‘what better time to make those investments?'"

Opposition to Smart Grid

Some worry about associated privacy issues of sharing energy usage data or health issues regarding use of electromagnetic transmitters built into the devices. 

"I believe consumers should be educated similar to introduction of any other new technology and when they see the benefits, they will buy into it just like Internet," Famouri said. 

Durand said in her experience, opposition to the smart grid is a very small, if vocal, portion of a community. 

How far along is West Virginia? Famouri said he puts the state's progress at about "middle of the road" among other states. He said both of the state's large utilities are working to spread smart grid projects. 

Don Walker, an engineer with the West Virginia Public Service Commission, said he believes the state is moving toward smart grid technology at a pace about average.

"I think smart technology is going to be very helpful in maintaining the power grid," he said, adding, "We're heading in that direction, and I believe that is going to be the upcoming way of handling this heavy industry."

That the smart grid has taken this long, Delurey said, is more about the complexity of the system than it is about public appetite for a smart grid.

"The technology was not there (before)," he said. "You didn't have the adaptation of information technologies in the use of the grid. It's not like utility companies did anything wrong in the past or utility regulators did anything wrong. We've got the technology here now."

Durand said the grid has some catching up to do as far as going digital.

"It's the last major U.S. industry that has not participated in a digital revolution," Durand said, adding that nearly all other services offer some form of online monitoring and management of services. "The grid is really complex, and it has been developed in a certain way. Any time you have a change it's slow to happen."

She compares it to going grocery shopping all month without knowing the price of individual items. At the end of the month, you receive a bill and have no idea what costs went into the bill. 

Those savings, however, will require an initial sacrifice. 

"People have to be willing to make the investment," Delurey said. "There's a lot of talk about infrastructure investment in the United States — roads, bridges and tunnels and all that. Well this is another critical infrastructure to business and society in the U.S."

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