Smart-Grid Initiative May Signal Step Toward Energy Independence (Opinion)

Sacramento, Calif., utility plans smart meters to let consumers track energy use; improved use of renewable energy.

by / July 31, 2010

As editor of a technology magazine, I spend most of my time writing or reading about IT deployments. But this one hits close to home.

Our cover story looks at a smart-grid initiative recently launched by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), which is the publicly owned utility that provides electric power to Sacramento, Calif., and its surrounding communities. And by 2011, SMUD expects to roll out smart electric meters to its 600,000 ratepayers. Some 75,000 of these meters already are installed as part of an initial test, and one of them is attached to the side of my house.

So far, it hasn't meant much. I received a letter from SMUD telling me I'd be getting the new device, and shortly after, it showed up. I'm told that soon I'll be able to log on to my online utility account and view yesterday's power consumption. And eventually, I'll be able to track energy use by individual appliances and program them to operate for optimum efficiency.

The question is: Will I take advantage of these new capabilities? I canceled my Netflix account because it was too much trouble to manage the queue of DVD movies waiting to appear in my mailbox. My LinkedIn page is a train wreck of unreturned connection requests. Will I really take a more active role in managing my electricity use? Will my 600,000 fellow ratepayers?

Well, maybe ... if I can shave a few dollars from my monthly utility bill by paying more attention to my power use. Luckily for me, SMUD has a reputation for being well managed and offers some of the area's lowest utility rates. But extra money in my pocket will be a motivator, and SMUD's betting that many of its customers will feel the same way. If enough electricity consumers change their behavior, it could eliminate the need to build costly new power generation plants.

Beyond the smart meters, SMUD's smart-grid initiative -- funded by a $128 million federal stimulus grant -- will help the utility upgrade its power transmission infrastructure to make better use of renewable energy sources like solar and wind. In sunny Sacramento, for instance, it's hard to drive through a neighborhood without spotting solar panels atop several rooftops. Through smart-grid technology, SMUD would be able to buy excess power from those homeowners, essentially adding them to its power generation capacity.

As I write this, thousands of barrels of oil continue to gush into the Gulf of Mexico from the BP Deepwater Horizon well blowout. It's a stark reminder of the price we pay for our dependence on fossil fuels.

If efforts like the one taking place in my hometown are a step toward energy independence, then perhaps they deserve my support. And if SMUD is handing me tools to cut my power consumption, I think I'd better use them.


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