Smart Grid Smart Grid Internally Created

More than half a million homes and businesses in Sacramento, Calif., will be equipped with smart utility meters by the end of 2011, promising consumers sophisticated tools to manage energy consumption and helping the local public utility deliver power more efficiently.

Sacramento is just one example of how billions of dollars in federal stimulus funds are jump-starting smart-grid investments. The Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) was one of 100 utilities to win a piece of the $3.4 billion in smart grid funds contained in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). Indeed, SMUD was one of the nation's more successful applicants, pulling down $128 million for smart meters, dynamic pricing, electric vehicle charging stations and home energy management systems.

These funds are speeding up the transformation of electric utilities, where methods of delivering electricity haven't changed much in the past 50 years. A smart grid usually involves a utility reading customers' energy usage remotely via digital meters, which also can be used to activate and deactivate services. The meters will measure power usage on daily, rather than today's standard of monthly measurement. Smart grids also typically feature more energy-efficient ways to move electricity around the power infrastructure.

SMUD expects to deploy 600,000 smart meters by December 2011. As more automated meters are installed throughout the United States, opportunities grow for additional IT devices to be connected to those meters. For example, the utility envisions innovations that will let citizens remotely control their air conditioners, refrigerators and other electronic devices. In SMUD's case, the grant money also will pay for new tools designed to help it better use renewable energy sources like solar and wind.

Although SMUD had already planned to convert to smart meters, the utility was on a much slower deployment plan without stimulus money. But while ARRA funds are accelerating activity for SMUD and other grant recipients, there's lingering uncertainty that stimulus investments will propel this movement beyond the projects that already have been subsidized.

Smart Grid Beyond Smart Meters SMUD

A smart grid, as most in the industry define it, utilizes more than smart meters. Many believe a smart grid should take a greater amount of its power from renewable energy, update its mechanisms for passing power around the infrastructure and enable citizens to track their power usage. Households that monitor power consumption might find ways to conserve energy and cut their utility bills, which alleviates strain on the grid. SMUD plans to let users track their daily electricity consumption on the utility's Web portal, and is testing in-home technologies that could provide even more granular data. This is another area where stimulus money plays a role. ARRA grants are funding SMUD's development of user-friendly devices that could show the amount of power consumed by each electronic device in a customer's home.

Bill Slaton, a member of SMUD's board of directors, sees a market for tools that would let residents control all electrically powered devices in their homes remotely via the Internet. Those capabilities, while possible today, are beyond the reach of average consumers.

"It's not to the point where you just go down to Home Depot and there are seven choices for how to do it, and you buy one and plug something in, and it works," Slaton said. "Right now, it's still at the geeky stage - the techno-geeks. I'm one of them, so my house is automated. I've figured out how to do all of that stuff, and I can actually control my house from my iPhone. But I'm the exception, not the norm."

Slaton said growth in smart grid deployment will spur the market to offer more of these devices.

With renewable energy viewed as essential to

Andy Opsahl  | 

Andy Opsahl is a former writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.