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TMCnet's Smarter Utility Week in Review

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August 18, 2012

TMCnet's Smarter Utility Week in Review

By Cheryl Kaften, TMCnet Contributor

In Smarter Utility news this week, it turns out that size may matter when it comes to the grid — and that “islanding” relatively small groups of customers using microgrids may prevent widespread blackouts.

As grid outages hit the headlines recently, due to “over-demand” in India and wild weather in the United States, utilities began to look at microgrids not just as third-world or rural-community infrastructure, but as a method of “islanding” electricity to prevent extensive blackouts. Pike Research (News - Alert) has just released a report that predicts that the total worldwide capacity of utility distribution microgrids (UDMs)—including investor-owned utility, public power grid-tied, and remote microgrids — will nearly triple within the next six years, reaching 1.2 gigawatts in 2018. The distinction between grid-tied microgrids and remote microgrids is that the latter are not connected to the larger grid. While still adhering to the fundamental definition of what constitutes a microgrid, the new Pike report, “Utility Distribution Microgrids,” places UDMs within the context of ongoing utility deployments of smart grid technology designed to increase operational and reliability efficiencies. According to the study, the United States represents the best overall market for all microgrid segments in terms of aggregate capacity, including UDMs. Key factors include pockets of poor power quality scattered throughout the United States and the structure of behind-the-meter markets for distributed energy resources. Connecticut appears to be the first state moving forward with a policy program to promote microgrids. However, the focus of this effort— which already has identified more than 300 viable microgrid sites — is on the more traditional customer-driven microgrid model of development and is limited to a one-time $15 million grant and loan program for microgrids, primarily targeting police and hospital facilities.

Speaking of Connecticut, next time you receive a utility bill, consider the recent case of Grace Edwards from the Town of Cheshire, who recently got a refund check for $10,491 after forking over money to light up two streetlights for 25 years. CL&P overcharged this unlucky woman $20 each month, for all of that time. After realizing her bills were repeatedly more costly than they should be, Edwards contacted both the utility company and a state agency to find out why, but was left in the dark when not one representative from either organization admitted a mistake. She eventually gathered up all of her old statements and it was only then that CL&P took the lights off future bills— but refused to refund her money, stating it was her fault for not letting the company know that she was paying too much. When she teamed up with the Office of Consumer Counsel, CL&P admitted responsibility for the overcharging and returned her hard-earned cash. "We have reimbursed her in the amount that she was incorrectly billed plus interest," said the utility spokesperson, "and will be using this case as a learning experience to identify process and customer service improvements … in the future." 

Siemens (News - Alert) is all set to unveil its end-to-end Smart Grid Portfolio at Transmission & Distribution /Smart Grids Europe. The company has announced its lead sponsorship for the annual Transmission & Distribution/Smart Grids Europe, co-joined with Metering, Billing/CRM Europe and Smart Homes, which takes place from 9-11 October in Amsterdam. “This is the ideal occasion for Siemens Smart Grid to present its vision and solutions for the energy landscape of the future. After a long phase of discussing and planning intelligent energy infrastructures, the time has now come to construct smart grids and to create successful business cases for utilities,” said Jan Michael Mrosik, CEO of Siemens’ Smart Grid Division.

Among utility ratepayers, smart meters increasingly are being bad-mouthed, because, “they say” the new technology is way too expensive, causes illness through exposure—and even facilitates domestic espionage. For example, in June, blogger Gene Bifano urged Vermont residents to reject smart meters because, “Google (News - Alert) has announced it is working with electric companies and appliance manufacturers to build smart controllers in appliances; refrigerators, washer/dryers [and] heating systems. This will enable the electric company or even Google to spy on your usage and … control your appliances.” Similarly, in May, local activists fought back when Baltimore Gas & Electric proposed a smart meter deployment. Jonathan Libber, president of Maryland Smart Meter Awareness, told The Baltimore Sun that smart meters “are a bad idea," adding, "There has been no demonstrated savings for the regulated ratepayer. That's the first problem. The second problem is that they're potentially very dangerous." And even previous supporters are starting to become skeptical."Two years ago I didn't believe that any of this was real," said Joshua Hart, director of Stop Smart Meters, a California-based advocacy group. However, he remarked recently, "Now I am getting headaches when I am around smart meters and cell phones and Wi-Fi. There is no doubt in my mind anymore that there is a problem with the technology." Are these urban legends—or should we lock our doors and put tin foil on our heads? The Roswell, Georgia-based Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative (SGCC) wants to help separate fact from fiction. This week, the group released a new video and fact sheet that fight uncertainty and fear with evidence and experience. For example, did you know that it would take 375 years of direct contact with a smart meter to equal the same amount of radio frequency exposure from a daily, 15-minute cell phone call for one year? The group urges readers to look at the facts and make up their own minds.

And finally, National Instruments (News - Alert) (NI) may not have come up with a better mousetrap, but the company claims it is offering a better inverter. Until now, to tie renewable energy systems into the grid, utilities have been limited to using power inverters that are designed to work with just one type of technology—whether it’s solar, wind, battery, or fuel cell. However, a single-technology design restricts what an inverter can do. That problem has been addressed by the new National Instruments Single-Board RIO General Purpose Inverter Controller (GPIC), in combination with NI’s powerful system design software, LabView (short for Laboratory Virtual Instrumentation Engineering Workbench)—which work with multiple technologies at the same time. The new NI Single-Board RIO General Purpose Inverter Controller (GPIC) offers a next-generation embedded system design approach for the rapid deployment of advanced, field-reconfigurable digital energy conversion systems.

Want to learn more about the latest in communications and technology? Then be sure to attend ITEXPO West 2012, taking place Oct. 2-5, in Austin, TX.  Stay in touch with everything happening at ITEXPO (News - Alert). Follow us on Twitter.

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