The phrase of the moment, at least among utilities, energy companies and green technology advocates is “smart grid.”
For two days next week a brain trust of Northwest energy experts will gather in Spokane to discuss how to move the country’s power grid from dumb to smart, and what exactly that change involves.
Hosting the event are Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell and Itron Inc., the Liberty Lake company that develops advanced utility meter systems and tools for analyzing power consumption.
Cantwell’s interest in energy planning is reflected in her recently being named chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources’ subcommittee on energy.
The conference runs Monday and Tuesday at the Spokane Convention Center with several panel discussions and breakout sessions on technical challenges of energy-grid change and what impact those changes will have on consumers and businesses.
LeRoy Nosbaum, chairman and former CEO of Itron, has said repeatedly that U.S. power planning and energy policy are essentially nonexistent. The urgent need to reshape energy planning, Nosbaum said, was underlined by the Obama administration adding $4.5 billion for smart grid projects in the massive economic stimulus package.
Nosbaum and many others say the existing energy system is aging, subject to blackouts and incapable of keeping up with growing demand.
From the start the Spokane conference will define what smart grid means. Conference panelist Jesse Berst, managing partner of Redmond-based Global Smart Energy, has a three-part checklist. To him, smart grid involves:
•Smart devices that collect and analyze the flow of electricity going through them, all along the system from power generation down to devices in the home.
•A robust and secure two-way communications system that lets the smart devices send information up or down the network.
•Advanced control systems that provide utilities and customers more ways to adapt or reduce energy use based on conditions.
On hand also will be energy researchers from Pacific Northwest National Laboratories, who have been developing smart-grid systems for several years.
PNNL energy group manager Carl Imhoff, who will chair one session, considers this moment in energy planning similar to the massive rural electrification efforts started in the 1930s.
“We are now in another pivot point for us as a nation. It will happen; it’s inevitable,” Imhoff said.
“The current stimulus package is an important jump-start to get this going,” he added. More than reducing the nation’s dependence on oil, the smart grid initiative should create better ways to integrate power from wind and solar resources, new technology for energy storage and cyber-security, and incentives for energy conservation.
“We ultimately have to move in that direction, and the only question is how quickly it will happen,” said Imhoff.