Cover Story

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 its development.

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 bills.

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.”

Doe grants available

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 substations.  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 development.

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.”  


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