Smart power grid starts with smart meters

For more than 100 years, Kaua‘i’s power plants have been gulping oil imported from overseas — most recently at the lumbering rate of 2,000 barrels a day. Our demand for electricity drains our local economy and pollutes the environment. Is this really the future we want for Kaua‘i? Having grown up here, I don’t think so. I believe our community is committed to a healthier and more sustainable future.

 Kaua‘i’s goal is to replace half of its fossil-fuel-based electricity with new streams of clean, renewable power by 2023 — impressively ahead of the state’s goal of 40 percent by 2030. Some of these new streams will provide steady power. But some will fluctuate, like energy from the sun. Our old electricity grid will struggle to accommodate all this new power. We need a modern “smart” grid.

 Think of the smart grid as a complex nervous system—a network of neurons and synapses that can communicate with each other, interpret data, and activate the appropriate response. In humans, this information network enables sophisticated perception — like seeing and hearing — coordination with other organ systems — respiratory, circulatory, muscular, etc. — and the ability to process signals rapidly.

 In a modern grid, smart meters act as the nerve endings, detecting energy demand at each point on the grid. Their function is critical: A home that can’t signal the grid is as helpless as a hand that can’t tell the brain the stove is hot. Our old analog electric meters are just as helpless. They can’t communicate how much power is needed, when that power is needed, when the power is out, or when the power is about to go out.

 In order to ensure that every part of the grid always has enough power, our generators constantly produce more than we need, keeping a spinning reserve to accommodate peak loads. Consider how much more efficient it would be to operate with precise information about where the demand and supply is at any given time — if the grid could automatically respond to a spike in demand in Kapa‘a by transferring surplus solar power from Port Allen, for example, or by dialing down a hotel pool heater for a few minutes to allow the spike to pass. These demand response strategies would translate into less wasted electricity.

 KIUC is also testing the effectiveness of a smart meter-enabled, in-home display to help customers take control of their energy use. Imagine if you paid for groceries the way you pay for electricity — in one monthly bill that doesn’t specify what anything costs. How would you know where to save? Like an itemized grocery receipt, an in-home display reports real-time electricity usage, showing customers exactly when their money is being spent.

 For customers, this becomes truly valuable when they are able to take advantage of dynamic, time-of-use rates. In order to maintain a steadier flow of electricity, utilities can price power so that it costs less when more is available, and vice-versa. With detailed knowledge about their energy use, customers will be able to deliberately buy power when it’s “on sale.”

 For instance, Pennsylvania utility customers were offered one free electricity day a week in exchange for slightly higher rates the rest of the week. Naturally, consumers shift some their most costly uses—like laundry—to the day they don’t have to pay for power. Similarly in Oklahoma, where 500,000 smart meters have been installed, customers under a time-of-use plan are realizing the benefits of being able to manage their own energy use — 90 percent of those households have seen their electricity bills drop.

 Why is it important to smooth out demand? Revving up the generators is like driving in stop-and-go traffic — driving steady highway miles is a lot more efficient.

This efficiency yields a most valuable clean energy benefit: It hastens the retirement of dirty fossil plants and halts the construction of new ones.

 Grid modernization won’t happen overnight. We shouldn’t delay it any longer.

Consider all the other benefits we’ve gained from smart networks: improved safety — emergency dispatchers can locate and alert the closest first responders; extra security — fishermen can use GPS to find their way back home; and greater connectivity — people use Facebook to build relationships with families, friends, and even fellow community advocates.

 It’s easy to list reasons to be afraid of change. And it’s even easier to bury our heads in the sand and pretend our outdated energy model can serve future generations. But except for those living off the grid, our energy supply is a shared resource. Kaua‘i can be proud that our community joins together to protect our island resources, and our shared energy is no exception.

A smart meter network is a first step toward enabling us to produce and distribute our energy more efficiently. This is fundamental to a sustainable future, and I hope the Kaua‘i community will continue to work together to keep our progress moving.

 

• Ivory McClintock is a program specialist for Blue Planet Foundation, a nonprofit committed to ending the use of fossil fuels. For more information on smart meters, visit blueplanetfoundation.org/smartmeters.

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