Plugging into the Smart Grid
Electric Cooperatives are Working
Today to Empower Tomorrow
by Doug Cochran, Contributing Writer
The Smart Grid. It’s the marriage of today’s digital
technology and the distribution network that
has brought electricity to our homes and businesses for years. The Smart
Grid is all about two-way communication, energy efficiency, and options.
Like a lot of new concepts in our digital age, the Smart
Grid encompasses many different technologies, and it’s hard to define.
However, two things about it are pretty clear. First, it will affect how you
get and use electricity, and, second, cooperatives are in the forefront of
Essentially, the Smart Grid brings rapid two-way
communication and control to the traditional transmission and distribution
system. Your cooperative will know more about how power flows across its
system, and will be able to actually control those flows to keep costs down
and reliability high. It also means you can know a lot more about the energy
you use in real time, and can actually take practical steps to lower your
Interactive Nature Appealing
Given that cooperatives are member driven and member
focused, they have found the interactive nature of the Smart Grid
particularly appealing. “Cooperatives have come a long way down the road
toward Smart Grid,” notes Mike Aulgur, Shenandoah Valley Electric
Cooperative’s (SVEC) manager of external affairs. “Many other parts of the
electric industry have not been as aggressive as have cooperatives in
exploring these options.”
Some cooperatives started moving toward new technologies
many years ago with remote or automatic electric meters, and installation of
devices in substations to monitor and control power remotely.
Greg White, CEO of Northern Neck Electric Cooperative
(NNEC), explains, “We’ve already got some Smart Grid systems in place ...
like most other cooperatives.” He cites his co-op’s automated meter reading
system that not only enhances meter reading efficiency, it helps detect
outages “and helps us make certain that we get everybody back on.” A number
of the new technologies can guide maintenance
to help prevent outages, or speed power restoration.
Mecklenberg Electric Cooperative is investing in its own
automated meters this year, a big step for the cooperative. John Lee, CEO,
explains, “We’ve been taking our time; we don’t want to invest our dollars
in a technology that won’t accommodate the new ideas coming down in the
years ahead.” He adds that some of the technology has advanced rapidly over
recent years and now makes economic sense, “But this is as big a technology
investment as our co-op has ever made.”
Two Virginia cooperatives,
Rappahannock (REC) and Northern Virginia (NOVEC), have recently been awarded
major Department of Energy grants to advance planned Smart Grid projects.
REC will use its grant to help
lay the groundwork for a host of devices that will provide usage and cost
information to both the cooperative and its members. Since 2002, REC has
been automatically reading residential members’ meters through its automated
metering infrastructure. The cooperative will expand and upgrade its
communications systems, and install new control and data equipment in
Part of the grant will go toward installation
of 50,000 new “intelligent” electric meters in the co-op’s
soon-to-be-acquired, expanded service territory. These meters offer two-way
communications, and are devices that can serve as a gateway for consumers to
take advantage of future energy- efficiency and demand-lowering programs.
The cooperative will also install devices enabling it to
regulate members’ air conditioning and water heater systems, for those
participating in demand-control programs. “Active participation in water
heater and air conditioning load-control programs is one way our members can
help manage our cost of wholesale electricity with no out-of-pocket
expense,” says Todd Jordan, the cooperative’s director of market
REC officials see the new technologies increasing
efficiency, lowering peak demand on their system, and lowering operating
costs — including using technology to cut employee driving by almost a
million miles a year.
NOVEC developed its Smart Grid plan in 2005. Jim Moxley,
NOVEC senior vice president, administration, substations and
telecommunications, says, “This federal stimulus grant will help NOVEC
accelerate the modernization of its electric distribution system and, more
importantly, provide critical infrastructure for the future deployment of
other Smart Grid technology.”
NOVEC will be adding banks of capacitors to its
distribution lines to improve the efficiency of those lines. The cooperative
is also adding significantly to the fiber optic system linking most of its
substations. “A strong communication network is the foundation of any Smart
Grid program,” Moxley says.
Jason Burch, SVEC’s manager of system engineering,
observes, “The Smart Grid means a lot more data for everybody. It’s helping
a lot right now with faster, more accurate data.” Burch, who constantly
models the flow of energy on his cooperative’s system, explains that the
more known about how the system is working, the more efficiently it can be
managed and maintained, and the lower its costs.
Smart Grid will not only help cooperatives operate and
maintain their systems more efficiently, it will also have a direct impact
on members and their ability to manage their own electricity use.
Shawn Hildebrand, general manager of Craig-Botetourt
Electric Cooperative, says, “I see the Smart Grid as giving us the ability
to provide our membership more reliable service, and help them understand
their bills.” He explains, “Today members use electricity, but pay for it
later. We want them to know more about their use as they use it, so they can
take greater responsibility for how they use it.”
Hildebrand notes that his cooperative, like most others,
is considering implementing time-of-use pricing, and even the installation
of displays in members’ homes that let them track their energy use,
including current and total pricing.
The consumer aspect of Smart Grid
technologies opens a wide variety of options to homes and businesses. By
using major appliances like stoves and dryers during periods when power is
in less demand — nights and weekends for example — consumers with
time-of-use rates would be able to lower their bills significantly. Smart
Grid can offer them the information they need to make smart choices.
NNEC’s White reports his cooperative is already using its
automated meters to offer members daily reports on their energy costs by
e-mail if they want. “The more they know, the better,” he says.
The Car Connection
One of the major potential benefits of Smart Grid
technologies is expected to be its ability to respond to growing numbers of
plug-in hybrid and full electric vehicles. These vehicles will offer
cooperatives a convenient way to level out the demand on their systems. The
Smart Grid will let consumers know when to charge their cars at the lowest
cost, at night for example. Studies indicate that vehicles charged at such
times will be paying for that energy at or below the equivalent of 75 cents
per gallon of gas.
On a larger scale, Smart Grid technologies will also
enable cooperatives and others to more efficiently use electricity from new
alternative “green” generation. Solar and wind power, for example, are
intermittent — their generation is affected heavily by weather. The data and
control provided by Smart Grid will enable cooperatives and other utilities
to use such generation most effectively, and reduce carbon emissions.
No Free Lunch
Smart Grid is all about information and energy, but it
uses technologies that are complex and expensive. All Virginia cooperatives
have adopted some Smart Grid technologies, and all continue to closely
monitor developments and analyze costs.
Mike Bender, Southside Electric Cooperative’s director of
engineering services, says, “One of our key strategic objectives is to
control costs and increase reliability for our members, and we are going to
continue to look carefully at all the Smart Grid options. The great
challenge with these new technologies is going to be the cost.” He pauses,
then adds, “But Smart Grid is the future.”