September 11, 2009 in Opinion

Editorial: Smart grid offers leap forward on power usage


Once, when an appliance store ran low on waffle irons, the manager would order several more to avoid running out. Sooner or later, however, consumer preferences would change and the store would be stuck with a dozen unwanted waffle irons.

Then retail wizards discovered just-in-time inventory control.

Today, when you take your waffle iron to the checkout counter, the clerk scans the bar code and a message flashes back up the distribution chain to the factory: Send another waffle iron.

Wouldn’t it be great if electricity could be supplied that way? What if the power utilities had precise consumption feedback, allowing them to manage their generators to avoid the needless expense of producing power that would just go to waste?

Better yet, what if utilities and their customers could stay in immediate communication so that demand itself could be monitored and managed, moment to moment, and high-demand periods could be eased? That would be especially useful as the Pacific Northwest turns increasingly to windmills for electricity generation that is clean, renewable and relatively cheap – but highly unreliable.

It so happens that all of those things are in the works as part of what’s been dubbed the smart grid, the full development of which the U.S. Department of Energy estimates is a decade or more away. But the timetable could be accelerated based on information gathered under a pilot project proposed by a dozen Northwest utilities (including Avista Utilities and Inland Power and Light Co.) along with a variety of agencies and equipment manufacturers.

The utilities should know this fall whether their project, directed by Battelle, qualifies for federal stimulus money that is intended for demonstrating how the smart grid will make electricity distribution and use more efficient. If so, selected communities in five states would be able to sample advanced metering technologies that are said to be at the heart of the smart grid concept.

By knowing if consumers will alter their electricity usage patterns in return for a break on their rates, utilities will be better able to meet demand without the expense, not to mention the environmental consequences, of relying on carbon-generating plants to help them over peak loads.

Efficient use of the nation’s electrical power grid is also seen as a way to avert major power outages such as the one that darkened much of the Northeast in 2003. As it is, outages and disruptions are blamed for a $150 billion annual dent in the nation’s economy.

With the proliferation of computers and other electronic gadgets that now fill American households, electricity demand is outpacing new generating capacity at a rate of 25 percent a year – and has been for a quarter of a century, according to the Energy Department.

Yet if the smart grid can make the whole system just 5 percent more efficient, the reduction in fuel consumption and carbon emissions would be the equivalent of taking 53 million cars off the roads.

Consumers and utilities both have a lot to learn about using electricity wisely as a means of protecting both our environment and our economy.

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