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Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy

Smart Grid Cities: Boulder’s Pilot Project & DOE Helps 5 Smart Grid Projects

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Two news stories caught my eye this weekend dealing with Smart Grid projects.  Smart grids are being researched and developed to connect residents and businesses with utility companies.  Based on the thought that people tend to reduce usage of resources when presented with that information in real-time, smart grids are envisioned as a way to help bring our wasteful energy use down.  I hold the opinion that they are a critical development in solving our climate crisis.  Serving as a foundation to introduce applications for people to directly affect their energy usage on a minute-to-minute basis if they choose, incorporating plug-in vehicles to act as energy storage and delivery systems and pulling together demand-site and utility-scale energy generation technologies, smart grids need to be developed and deployed to every city as quickly as possible.

But haste makes waste, as the saying goes.  On the way toward deploying smart grid technologies, robust systems that are well-planned and installed as advertised are obviously important.  That brings me to the first story: Xcel, critics await PUC’s smart-grid rate ruling.  A little bit of background: back in March 2008, Boulder, CO was announced as the first city where smart grid technologies would be deployed.  Originally, 15,000 smart grid meters were to be installed by Aug. 2009, with 50,000 meters installed by Dec. 2009, at a cost of “up to $100 million”.  I noted back in March 2009 that Xcel was running into some delays and that hard projections were becoming scarce to locate.  That trend has continued.  There is plenty of information available to participants in the program, but Xcel has understandably not advertised the kind of information they were when the program was announced.  As best as I can figure out, there are far fewer than 50,000 participants in Boulder’s smart grid program today.

The article I linked to above describes a situation that troubles me: Xcel wants all its CO ratepayers to pick up the $44.5 million tab, which is triple what Xcel estimated their costs to be back in 2008.  I don’t think ratepayers should be held financially responsible for Xcel’s lack of planning and execution.

The Public Utilities Commission is set to rule by mid-December on a recommendation by Administrative Law Judge G. Harris Adams to accept a settlement agreement giving Xcel the $44.5 million. […]
Still, the PUC is being urged to reject Adams’ recommendation — in full or in part — by the state Office of Consumer Council, mining and steel companies, and a citizen intervener in the case.

Opposition includes some rather unlikely entities, but I agree with their reasoning:

The judge “reached the wrong decision,” Climax Molybdenum Co., which operates a mine in Empire, and Rocky Mountain Steel of Pueblo, said in a filing to the
commission. The mill and the mine are Xcel’s two largest customers.  The two companies contend that the pilot is a research-and-development project and its full costs should be borne by Xcel shareholders, not ratepayers.

You will note that not one word about corporations’ inability to keep costs down has been issued by Jon Caldara, Vincent Carroll, David Harsanyi or Mike Rosen, which proves yet again that all they care about is destroying government.  Xcel should hit its shareholders up for the extra costs.  Ratepayers are already paying for a coal plant that a majority didn’t want but was “necessary” because of the stupid way utilities engage in business practices: more plants means more profit.  If Xcel’s ratepayers are allowed to voluntarily join a smart grid program, Xcel can charge them individually.  If all of the ratepayers want access, they can charge all the ratepayers.

This is a good place to transition to the second news article: the DoE is providing $19 million to 5 other smart grid projects.

The five programs that will receive DOE funding include:
  • ABB Inc. in Raleigh, North Carolina ($2.99 million)
  • Areva T&D, Inc. in Redmond, Washington ($6 million)
  • Boeing Company in St. Louis, Missouri ($6 million)
  • On-Ramp Wireless in San Diego, California ($2.14 million)
  • Varentec, Inc in North Andover, Massachusetts ($2.29 million)

It is encouraging to see federal assistance making its way down to local smart grid projects.  It is disheartening to see how little money is being made available.  Smart grids need to be deployed to as many places as possible in as short a time as possible, while maintaining high levels of performance and staying within estimated costs and timelines.  That’s a lot of requirements, but it’s really no different than any other project out there in either the public or private sector.  But if technologies like plug-in vehicles or markets like consumer energy trading are to occur on the levels necessary to classify as global warming action in the limited time we now have available, a lot more money needs to be raised, allocated and spent to deploy smart grids.  And that’s only one small facet of the suite of projects that need to be rapidly deployed.  As I’ll detail in an upcoming post, it will take Trillions of dollars of capital to get the U.S. situated to prevent catastrophic global warming effects.  As I’ve written already, however, that’s Trillions less than it will cost if we instead sit idle.


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