PORTLAND – Researchers across the Northwest have demonstrated that new technology can help manage electricity use. Now they’re betting they’ll get the same results with new experiments and show the whole country how it’s done.
Twelve utilities in five states – including Avista Utilities and Inland Power and Light Co. in Spokane – have signed on to a proposal to test the so-called smart power grid under the direction of Battelle, the company that operates the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, in Richland. Battelle has applied for federal stimulus money.
The term “smart grid” has come to include any improvements in the way energy is transmitted, stored and consumed. And the federal Department of Energy has taken proposals from utilities across the country wanting to demonstrate their smart-grid projects.
Carl Imhoff, a research director with Battelle, said that the regional reach of this proposal, with participants from Wyoming to Oregon, makes it stand out. “It’s cutting across a layer of the utility system that has not been done as aggressively,” he said.
“Using 12 different entities like this is a very compelling and bold experiment.”
As far as experiments go, this one isn’t as experimental as some; researchers are confident the grid will benefit from more smarts. But directions from the Department of Energy are clear: The goal isn’t to see whether proposed changes will improve the nation’s electrical system, but how those changes will improve the system.
The Northwest has a natural advantage in this area. The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory already tested smart-grid technology in a 2006-2007 study in Washington and Oregon. The Bonneville Power Administration participated in that study, and would take part in the proposed project as well.
That earlier study, also paid for by the Energy Department, showed that customers shift their energy use to times when there’s less stress on the grid if it saves them money. Another piece of the same study showed that a utility can use specially designed appliances to flatten peaks in electricity demand.
Battelle’s $178 million plan would build on that earlier study. “That was just 120 homes,” Imhoff said. “We’re extending that to up to 60,000 units participating, not just 120.”
Participating utilities would maintain test sites, working on various pieces of the smart grid.
Inland Power’s project will be in the Airway Heights area, and Avista’s will be in Pullman, Wash.
Portland General Electric, which managed smart appliances in the earlier study, would run a project in Salem.
The project serves as a microcosm of the bigger smart grid effort, said Mark Osborn, the utility’s distributed resources manager. PGE would mix various power generation and storage systems to shift electricity where it’s needed.
That’s essential for an electrical system dominated by renewable energy sources. Wind and solar power aren’t always available, so emphasis is placed on storage and smart transmission, Osborn said.
The project will incorporate better transmission lines, high-tech meters, smart appliances, battery storage, diesel generators – basically everything available, Osborn said. “We did a few pilots here and there with appliances and battery technology. But we need to integrate them in one location where they’re all functioning together.”
What PGE proposes to do with its Salem customers, Battelle would do with the whole region, Imhoff said. Officials there expect to learn by the end of the year whether their proposal was accepted.
“The group felt this would offer the most compelling test of what the smart grid would be to consumers and utilities in the region,” he said. “There have been a number of one-off things, smart meters (etc.), but the group felt the next level of investigation is to evaluate the true benefit of orchestrating a broad number of concepts at all the levels of the power system.”
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