Energy | Ecotrope

How the Northwest power grid is getting smarter

Ecotrope | May 16, 2011 1:57 p.m. | Updated: Feb. 19, 2013 1:38 p.m.

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A new day is dawning for transmission in the Northwest. Smart grid technology being tested in 60,000 homes this year could help the region balance the peaks and valleys of renewable power.

A new day is dawning for transmission in the Northwest. Smart grid technology being tested in 60,000 homes this year could help the region balance the peaks and valleys of renewable power.

So, the power grid in the Pacific Northwest is still dumb. But that’s not the end of the story.

I talked with Carl Imhoff at the Pacific Northwest National Lab about the future of power transmission in the Northwest.  Imhoff is the manager for electricity infrastructure markets at PNNL. He heads up research and development programs on transmission and smart grid technologies.

“We’re asking the grid to do more than it has traditionally done. We’re asking it to help the nation solve policy issues like clean energy generation, reducing carbon emissions and oil imports.” - Carl Imhoff

And he says even though the Northwest doesn’t have a structured, competitive power market that would allow consumers to shop around for power rates, the region’s power grid is getting smarter and more efficient. And there are numerous new technologies that promise better days to come.

Tools that are being tested around the Northwest have the power to create a smarter grid and smarter power customers, he said. With smart appliances, consumers can plan to use energy when it’s cheaper and help reduce the gridlock at peak usage times. But overhauling the entire system so that everyone can participate is a “multi-decade journey,” he said. “It takes a long time.”

“We as a nation for the last 100 years asked the grid to do two things with our power: keep it affordable and keep it reliable. Now, we’re adding to those expectations.

We’re asking the grid to do more than it has traditionally done. We’re asking it to help the nation solve policy issues like clean energy generation, reducing carbon emissions and oil imports.

At the same time we’re asking the grid to do more, we’re also bringing in new tools that let us improve on today’s practices so we can do them better, faster and smarter, with better controls.”

Those tools are on their way to customers, Imhoff said.

Smart grid testing: Round 1

A test project in 2006-07 showed that customers and utilities in the Northwest can benefit from smart grid technologies – even without a competitive power market.

The Gridwise project on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula allowed power customers ways to reduce their energy use in response to higher electricity prices. It used smart appliances – including thermostats, hot water heaters and clothes dryers – that “bid” on power when it reached a certain price point and reduced usage when prices were higher. The project wound up cutting power usage peaks by 15 percent and saving consumers 10 percent on their electric bills without a noticeable difference in how the appliances were operating.

“The Northwest is not pursuing structured markets because we have a lot of public power here and some investor-owned utilities,” Imhoff said. “But in our 2007 experiment we asked could we – in an environment where there aren’t structured markets – could we send some sort of incentive signal to the consumers with the help from utilities to reflect the fact that power is more and less expensive at different times of the day. When demand is way up or supply is way down, power costs can go way up. But those aren’t conveyed to the consumer.”

Smart grid testing: Round 2

A much larger smart grid demonstration project launched last year in the Northwest to test similar smart grid technology on 60,000 power customers in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Bonneville Power Administration is hoping the results will help solve the problem of renewable power gridlock managers are expecting once again this spring by employing “demand response” – using home appliances to store extra wind energy and reduce power use as needed.

“Most people just get a flat rate for their power that’s the same price on Christmas morning as it is any other time,” said Imhoff. “They take it with no sense of what’s going on in the grid. With demand response, they have choices. … If you’re water heater is on and they need help balancing the grid, they can turn it off in a way that you wouldn’t notice it. You let your equipment be in their control.”

Smart grid technology isn’t universally accepted yet, Imhoff said. It costs money to add the “gateway” to your home. Some people are worried about protecting their privacy within the two-way smart grid. And utilities want to make sure that all the changes in power generation and usage aren’t going to burn out their transformers.

On the other hand, the new technology can reduce costs for customers, give utilities earlier notice of power outages and reduce the additional energy sources needed to balance out fluctuations in wind and solar power coming onto the grid.

“We need to quantify the costs and benefits,” Imhoff said. “We have an opportunity to run the system more efficiently and be smarter about choosing which generators we use. Do we want to use thermal generators or 10,000 electric hot water heaters? Today we don’t have those options.”

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