Some of it is years away and most of it futuristic-sounding, but Owensboro Municipal Utilities in Kentucky is getting ready for such things as the smart grid, homes filled with smart appliances, a distribution system that heals itself, customers generating their own power and selling some of it back to the utility, rooftops covered with solar panels and streets filled with electric cars that need their batteries recharged.

"What do our customers want? We need to find out," OMU General Manager Terry Naulty said Thursday during a City Utility Commission meeting that was primarily devoted to a discussion of the future of electric utilities.

The discussion, which included video and slide-show presentations, was an education session for the OMU board that is part of the utility's current effort to update its strategic plan. The session was devoted to the smart grid and its expected impact on OMU's way of doing business.

The smart grid refers to a national, interconnected electricity network based on digital technology designed to manage the electrical supply and demand more efficiently while reducing energy consumption and improving reliability. Among many characteristics, the smart grid will allow net metering, that is, customers will be able to generate their own power with solar and wind technology and actually help power the grid.

"The smart grid is more than a distribution tool," Naulty said. "It is electric vehicles and smart homes that change customer's cost of power based on time of day (usage)."

Someday, a home's electric usage will be managed by a "home area network" device that will run appliances at night during off-peak hours, thereby lowering overall demand and reducing the amount of new generating capacity that must be built, Naulty said.

Steve Johnson, of S&C Electric of Chicago, told the commission that smart grid technology applied to the OMU's local distribution system could reduce peak demand, shorten restoration time in the event of power outages and conserve energy. New smart switches can reconnect themselves quickly, Johnson said, resulting in fewer trucks being dispatched, less overtime and less need for outside assistance during major outages.

"There is clear basis for implementing smart grid self-healing," Johnson said.

OMU believes customers will begin to demand options offered by smart grid and smart home systems. What it must do, Naulty said, is decide when and how it should begin investing in smart grid technology and figure out how much will it cost.

©2014 the Messenger-Inquirer (Owensboro, Ky.)