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In the Pacific Northwest, a Smarter Grid Comes Online

by Nathanael Massey
E&E, October 25, 2012

Across most of America, the electric grid operates as a one-way street: Electrons flow from generator to consumer, with little need for communication between the two.

But over the next two years, 11 utilities participating in the nation's largest smart grid demonstration project will have a chance to experiment with something far more dynamic. The latest phase of the project, sponsored by the Department of Energy and launched with an event at the University of Washington yesterday, provides real-time information to energy producers and consumers about prices, storage capacity, congestion -- and even the weather -- through a novel technology called the transactive control signal.

"The signal levels the playing field for legacy infrastructure to interact with new smart grid infrastructure," said Carl Imhoff, electricity infrastructure market sector manager at Battelle Memorial Institute, a global research and development organization leading the project.

The signal has two functions, he said: to send downstream information on the needs of operators, and upstream information about the likely usage of participating consumers.

The signal originates in the Electricity Infrastructure Operations Center of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), located at Battelle's facilities in Richland, Wash. There, a continuous flow of information on weather conditions, wind-power generation, electricity demand and power storage, among other factors, is accumulated and translated into pricing signals, which are in turn sent every five minutes to participating consumers.

Based on those price signals, consumers can adjust their usage to lower their power bill -- reducing demand during peak load periods in the process.

"Consumers don't need to make minute-by-minute decisions -- much of that will be programmed into the system automatically," Imhoff said. Consumers set basic parameters for how much they are willing to increase or decrease usage according to the needs of the grid, he added.

"The system is transparent, though -- consumers can adjust their usage at any time," he added.

Electricity supply becomes a two-way street

The two-way information exchange will also allow grid operators to assess performance and evaluate new technology in far greater detail than has previously been possible.

PNNL tested a less extensive version of the system in 2008, outfitting 115 consumers with smart water heaters and electric dryers that could cycle energy use during periods of peak demand. That yearlong project yielded annual average savings of 10 percent on consumers' energy bills and reduced peak demand by 15 percent.

Originally part of the Hanford nuclear site, PNNL has been in operation since 1965 and is operated by DOE's Office of Science. The laboratory's focus on the electric grid has been growing since the early 1990s, and was sharpened by blackouts in the late 1990s and early 2000s (ClimateWire, Nov. 23, 2010).

Its Northwest Smart Grid Demonstration Project, which was sponsored by a DOE Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability grant and co-funded by the participating utilities, was showcased yesterday at the University of Washington, in Seattle. The university has invested more than $10 million in the project so far, and increased its number of on-campus smart meters from seven to more than 200 since the project's launch in 2010.

While the project is experimental, it is designed to allow organizations -- such as small utilities or military bases, for example -- to join in over time, Imhoff said.

"One of the important propositions to test is whether this will work across different regulatory structures across the U.S.," he said. "The structure of the project is designed to get the most out of the existing system, and to that extent, I think it will work across regional systems."

Nathanael Massey
In the Pacific Northwest, a Smarter Grid Comes Online
E&E, October 25, 2012

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