Smart Grid ploy to grab stimulus funds

Hidden costs of the Grid
US utility companies are trying to cut the large amount of power wasted as it goes down the line to customers. They say they are acting because of looming limits on greenhouse-gas emissions in the US.

The greedy and slothful  companies are in fact motivated by billions of economic stimulus dollars being handed out. The stimulus money could be used more effectively installing renewable power and microgrids in local communities.

Harvesting extra efficiency from the national grid could postpone the next power plant, but so could introducing widespread household-level renewables.  Installing micro-grids everywhere  would cut down on the losses made in transmission.

“It  could be a bigger factor in reducing emissions than retraining customers on how to use their electricity,” said Thomas Jobes, the director of distribution reliability for American Electric Power Company Inc. (AEP), a Columbus, Ohio, electric utility.  Well he would say that wouldn’t he? It depends how badly you retrain the customers.  Mr Jobes did not explain why the mooted efficiencies have not already been implemented.

Power loss

Transmission and distribution lines are imperfect conductors, with over 10% of power lost as heat. If these so-called line losses were reduced by a tenth on the distribution system alone, the power saved would equal all the wind generation installed in the U.S. in 2006, according to the industry’s Electric Power Research Institute, or EPRI. That’s 2,454 megawatts, or approximately the equivalent of three typical coal-fired power plants.

However the biggest losses are made in the generating stations where a vast amount of heat energy is wasted.

The lazy energy companies have known for decades that they are losing (our) money this way, but in their near-monopoly position there was no incentive to do anything about it.  Now they are siezing on President Obama’s stimulus money to do the things they ought to be paying for out of their profits.

Balancing Act

AEP has demonstration projects under way that use sensors placed on distribution lines to help the utility manage the power system more effectively. Line losses grow as voltage on a line increases, but utilities can cut grid inefficiency by balancing voltage across the system so one line doesn’t carry a much larger electrical load than a nearby line does.

AEP told Dow Jones news service it plans to seek federal funding for the demonstration projects under the economic-stimulus legislation passed in February. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act set aside $11 billion for the creation of a smart grid, which utilizes digital communications to increase efficiency. Of the $11 billion, $615 million has been set aside for demonstration projects like AEP’s.

“Smart-grid technology can help regulate the voltage of the distribution system,” said Omar Siddiqui, who spent a decade working for power companies before joining the EPRI, based in Palo Alto, Calif.

Utilities are also exploring ways to make the power lines themselves more conductive. In 2007, New York’s Consolidated Edison Inc. (ED) signed an agreement with American Superconductor Corp. (AMSC) to test a line using wires cooled by liquid nitrogen, which eliminates the electric resistance on the line and allows it to carry up to 10 times more power than standard copper cables.

Smart Grid or Dumb Grid?

Smart-grid and superconductor technologies are at an early developmental phase, with further research required (again, to be funded by our stimulus money). Most utilities are sticking to traditional methods of reducing grid inefficiencies, such as replacing older equipment, including the power lines themselves, with newer models.

“Most of what we can do right now is with the equipment,” said George Bartlett, the director of transmission operation for Entergy Corp. (ETR). “Conceivably, when the smart grid is implemented, you could better balance power flows over the lines to reduce losses.”

Greener Circuits

Still, efforts to lower line losses with smart-grid technology are gathering steam. Public Service Enterprise Group Inc. (PEG) and FirstEnergy Corp. (FE) are among the utilities participating in EPRI’s “green circuits” initiative, an 18-month research-and-development project launched last year that aims to improve distribution-system efficiency. The project involves field tests of smart-grid technology.

Standard electric-grid equipment is designed to ensure that the system stays within required voltage levels at times of peak demand, such as on hot summer days when many customers run their air conditioners. But the grid is less efficient during off-peak periods.

Although projects like EPRI’s and AEP’s haven’t yet been deployed on a commercial scale, they could help utilities maintain the optimal voltage levels across the grid at different times of the year, decreasing line losses and allowing utilities to defer the construction of power plants that run on fossil fuels, said Paul Dorvel, a project manager with R.W. Beck, a Seattle-based technical consulting firm that has a dependency relationship on the Utility companies.

“Depending on what generation source would be selected, the reduction in losses and improvement in efficiency could defer that amount of CO2 emissions from a [natural gas] or coal facility,” Dorvel said.

One Response

  1. I’ll agree that the power companies have been lazy. I’ll even toss in stupid for not educating themselves on how various technologies could make their businesses run more efficiently and therefore more profitably. But greedy? If the power companies were as greedy as you state they are, they would have done all these fixes and heavily invested in alternative energy/renewables a long time ago. Greed is about the bottom line–making the most amount of money for the least expenditure. The power companies have been run more like bureaucracies in the last 50-75 years than profit-making ventures, which is how the grid has gotten into such bad shape.

    As for stimulus money, money spent is money spent–as long as it’s not sent overseas, it’s spent in our economy and affects us all positively.

    Lastly, once the grid *is* fixed, it will better handle all the private (and grid-tied) wind, solar, and hydro energy being generated by those of us who have installed/are installing these systems. Plus, the more systems installed, the lower the price of these systems become, so more people can afford bigger and better private wind, solar, and hydro energy systems, which makes more (and cheaper) power available for all.

    Sounds like a good thing to me.

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