Utilities across the United States are rushing to a federal stimulus program that is doling out money to create a “smart grid” — systems that will upgrade the electricity grid.******In this story, Reuters correspondent Eileen O’Grady looks at the tough job facing the U.S. Department of Energy: They have to divvy up $4.5 billion in smart-grid money among some 565 applications.******Smart grid technology measures and modifies power usage in homes and businesses and improves grid reliability. Experts envision that it will open the door to a new era with “smart” appliances that turn themselves on and off, electric cars, more renewable energy and more efficiency on power lines.******San Diego Gas & Electric is one of the utilities hoping to launch a smart grid through the federal program and has applied for $100 million in stimulus funds.******Their plan would build micro smart grids at the University of California, San Diego and a residential community in San Diego County. They would work with companies like IBM, Cisco and Itron on the system technologies, software and hardware.******”They not only have to talk with each other but we have to make sure the entire network is secure. So from an intellectual security standpoint, we’ll ensure that we have that set-up, that we have the ability to communicate from one device and we make it seamless for the customer,” said Michael Niggli, chief operations officer at San Diego Gas & Electric.******Another major issue the utility hopes to solve is what happens when energy from renewable resources is intermittent, with its power generated fading or spiking.******”If the wind stops blowing or if the sun has clouds that intervene, so you can be in a situation where the power supply is affected,” Niggli said in a phone interview with Reuters.******”That’s a lot different than what we have today … where it’s like driving a car. If you want to go faster, you push the accelerator.”******Niggli envisions a system where customers can control their home energy use remotely, turning on the air-conditioning from a computer through the Internet or even on their handset.******Some companies that are partnering with utilities are not putting all their eggs in one basket in the race for the smart-grid stimulus funds.******IBM is working as a vendor with a dozen utilities that have applied for money.******If the smart grid is done right, then customers won’t even notice a difference, said IBM’s Stephen Callahan, who leads the company’s Intelligent Utility Network unit for the Americas.******”Those customers shouldn’t see anything but improvement in cost, reliability, all those things,” Callahan said.******We wanted to know what readers think about the federal program to jump-start smart grid projects. What should the DOE prioritize? What kind of projects would you like to see?******(Photo: The sun is shown as it rises between power transmission lines in Burbank, California. Photo credit: Fred Prouser/Reuters)*********************
California utility PG&E is at the head of the class when it comes to smart meters in North America, having installed 2.3 million of them. It is on track to have nearly 10 million working by 2011, according to figures gathered by the utility and a survey of smart metering programs by the Energy Retail Association, of Britain.Smart meters are in their infancy but their numbers are expanding rapidly in the United States and around the world. After PG&E, PECO in Pennsylvania has installed 2.2 million meters — all of its power and natural gas customers. Even at 2.3 million, PG&E and North American utilities lag behind Italy and it biggest utility, Enel, which installed 30 million smart meters nationwide in four years.The digital meters allow for near real-time readings by customer and utility, allowing better informed decisions on cutting demand as well as getting a better handle on whether new power plants and lines are needed. Smart metering also offers the chance for customers to voluntarily set limits so that appliance turn off automatically if prices rise to high.It will cost PG&E customers — the cost is passed through to them — about $2.2 billion to install the 5.3 million electricity and 4.8 million natural gas meters.