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A Smarter Power Grid

The first crates of sleek new electric meters have arrived in Somerset. Workers at South Kentucky Rural Electric Cooperative Corporation (SKRECC) have started installing them at homes and businesses in Pulaski County and will soon expand into neighboring counties.

Co-op members, used to old-fashioned glass domes with tiny spinning dials inside, will quickly notice digital numbers on the faces of the new meters. But the best parts of the new devices are hidden away inside—internal computer chips that allow each meter to send and receive information to and from the co-op’s substations and offices.

The new meters and their communications capabilities are part of a major power-grid upgrade. During the next three years, SKRECC’s electric power system in 11 southern Kentucky counties and portions of two nearby Tennessee counties will become smarter than ever before. The upgrades will change the way co-op workers and members can interact—and help better manage reliable power service throughout the region.

Smart, smarter, smartest
SKRECC’s vast service territory includes about 6,700 miles of power lines that bring electricity from 42 substations to co-op members. The familiar routine of sending a person to look at 67,000 meters each month will no longer be necessary. The new meters can automatically send usage information back through the power lines to the main offices, saving time and money. That’s smart.

The new meters can also be set to send usage details at six-hour intervals daily, and include information about amperage and voltage. That’s even smarter.

Dennis Holt, vice president of engineering and operations for SKRECC, notes that the smart-grid upgrades will also include various remote sensors and two-way electronic communication points throughout the system. This will be a big help to co-op technicians.

Holt says, “This will give us the ability to better manage information during large power outages such as storms, and get the most members back on as fast as possible.”

Eventually, the system will offer more benefits for co-op members. “The new system will also have the ability to let members do Internet viewing of their usage,” Holt says. “We anticipate that in the future, the system will read the meter, upload that info to a Web site, and then people can look at it to see how much power they’ve used during each six-hour period.”

In the national quest to manage the supply and demand for electricity more evenly throughout each 24-hour period, that information is a big step. Active customer involvement will be the smartest part of the improved power grid.

In today’s world, most residential electric rates are based on average expenses to generate and deliver that power, no matter what time of day or night, no matter what season of the year. But in the smartest world of the future, electricity users will be able to see that using power during peak hours costs more—and using power during off-peak times is a lot cheaper. In every state, regulators are looking ahead to establish procedures for setting the variable rate structures that will be needed as part of a smart grid.

Co-ops lead on smart grids
Those price differences will be an important tool to persuade consumers to change some of their electricity use patterns.

Decreasing electricity use during peak times is important to utilities. Utility companies often must buy extra electricity from distant suppliers or build extra power plants to meet extreme demand during peak times. But those expensive plants sit idle for part of the day or year. It would be much more efficient to use existing power plants more evenly throughout each 24-hour period.

Instead of building new plants, adding smart-grid technology to the existing system may be a better investment for the future.

Nationally, cooperatives lead the utility industry in the deployment of smart-grid features. In Kentucky many other electric co-ops have already added some smart-grid features to their systems, including new meters, remote switching devices, and improved communications.

The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) reported that through 2008, almost half of all co-ops have at least some advanced metering within their systems. Nationally, about one-third have also begun to link those smart meters with other technology in their sections of the power grid.

The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (also known as the economic stimulus package) includes $3.4 billion for smart-grid infrastructure improvements. The SKRECC project qualified for more than $9 million in federal funds.

When the awards for new smart-grid projects in 15 states were announced last October, NRECA CEO Glenn English said, “Cooperatives welcome the challenge of modernizing the nation’s grid.”

In January of this year, the Kentucky Department for Energy Development and Independence asked for proposals for more smart-grid projects from all interested utilities within the state. This spring, the department will evaluate the applications and award up to $2.65 million in additional funds from the U.S. Energy Department’s share of other stimulus money.


KENTUCKY’S NATIONAL ROLE

James Gardner, vice chairman of the Kentucky Public Service Commission, is part of a 19-member national task force, the Smart Grid Collaborative, sponsored by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners. Three times a year Gardner joins his colleagues for wide-ranging discussions.

“The ‘smart grid’ is an important issue,” Gardner says. “There are expensive items of technology and important regulatory issues out there. We have to analyze these to be sure that we understand the consequences. Kentucky needs to be prepared for the future.”

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