A Sustainable Concept of the Grid
As a utility company or cooperative, it at first seems chilling to fully engage the consumer in the production and distribution of your product. Yet, there is strength in such a partnership, not weakness. It’s unrealistic to assume the user’s end goal will be life “off the grid.” There will always be a need for line construction, maintenance, power restoration, coordination of load, and purchasing for capacity and energy. Rather than seeing the nuisance of it, we should look at the benefits of a more independent, distributed form of supplying demand. For those of us in the distribution business, our most essential service is providing the grid, not determining who has access to it. Who wouldn’t want to reduce the number of customer complaints and questions over billing and load resources? The more our consumers know, the more they control, the less we have to explain.
To the extent they can generate or conserve electricity and shift their load at peak times, the entire system benefits. Rather than parceling out information in reactionary bills, we should provide instant access to meter information and arm our members with the ability to operate their own control rooms, and manage their own load. If our concern is that more consumer control will make our livelihoods less viable, chances are we will still get the call at 2 a.m. in the dead of winter to restore power.
Beyond the consumer right-to-know issue or our moral obligation as utility providers to better conserve and more efficiently use precious resources, there may actually be a safety net in all of this. Imagine that the revolution does come and battery technology becomes available to residential consumers, or plug-in hybrids and solar paint give them the ability to generate not only their own demands, but to produce excess power to sell. Who needs whom then?
We cannot realistically assume our consumers will remain content with today’s technology or services. We are part of the most robust electric grid in the world, but we are near the end of its original legacy. If we are to sustain the high level of service and commitment to quality of life we have enjoyed in the past, we must renew the electric grid by expanding its scope and access.
Here at Bluebonnet, our vision is to build not a smart grid, but a Sustainable Grid™. Our challenge is to take the information locked within the meter into the kitchen—to empower our members with real-time load data, the ability to set profiles, control appliances and shift load, while we balance the power they produce with the power we bring to our system from the wholesale market.
We differ from a smart grid concept in that we believe it is not enough to simply know more, or even to control more, but that we must set goals to neutralize, if not reduce, our system’s impact on the overall state grid. Through our Net Energy Market™ we will establish new partnerships with our members through conservation, demand management and efficiency programs. Our board has already adopted a net metering policy, but we will review all policies to ensure they facilitate our sustainability goals and encourage distributed generation. Empowerment through Education is also a critical element of our program. Every aspect of this strategy calls for us to do more and to know more. And because growing our system on a sustainable, environmentally sound basis is a challenging vision, we have a compelling reason to actively engage in Regional Economic Development. The cost of retrofitting is always more than the incremental cost associated with positive growth. Every new subdivision is an opportunity to build it right—from the beginning. Each new industry is not only a potential load, but also a potential source of generation. Each new job in our service territory is a commuter no longer on the road to Austin, San Antonio or Houston.
While it may be true that each new day offers a better brand of meter technology or information systems, we are reminded that if we had waited on the “next new technology” five years ago, we would not be where we are today. We will make the very best technology decisions we can, but we will not wait for tomorrow’s perfect or ultimate technology, as it so often never comes.
By the second quarter of 2010, we will have developed and implemented our member Web portal. This will allow every member of our system access to the grid via their home or business computer. This interface is an important element of our program and for many it will be the full extent of their access to the grid. Yet, not every member owns a computer and so will not be able to benefit from our changes in information technology or participate in our conservation and demand response programs with out an alternative mechanism.
At the same time, we will begin installing in-home wireless devices which will provide our members with the same information access they could gain through a computer. These small wireless devices will allow our members to read their meter, understand their load and know the month- to-date cost of their consumption. Through computer access and in-home devices, we plan to have 100 percent coverage of our system and the full participation of our membership.
Also starting in 2010, we will develop energy conservation and demand response programs. These will encourage every member to set up home energy networks to actively manage their electric load. These devices will allow members to control their appliances, set thermostats and conserve by either turning off equipment or shifting load by using appliances at “off peak” times. We will establish more effective energy audits and weatherization programs and will establish rates that reward members for using less electricity or using it when it is less costly for us to buy. There is a dramatic difference in the cost of electricity at peak times (1 p.m. - 6 p.m.) versus off peak times (11 p.m. - 10 a.m.), for example.
If we are successful in gaining stimulus funding, we expect to complete this program within two years. Without stimulus funding, we expect it will take until 2014, perhaps 2015, to complete. Outside funding is important to our goal of full deployment and we believe we are as far along in our development foundation as any utility in the country.
We believe we can effectively conserve and/or manage our way to a 20 percent reduction in our system load by 2020. In addition, we will increase the portfolio of renewables we buy through the wholesale generation market. These are our initial goals; our ultimate goal is to be neutral, if not a “nega-watt,” component of the statewide grid.