Smart Grid Projects in Minnesota

Electric Substation

Photo by Idaho National Laboratory on Flickr.

Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase “smart grid” with regard to how the US gets its electricity, but what does it mean? It’s much more than the programmable meter at your house that “smartly” learns when you need power and tells you how much energy you use.  The “smart grid” is also an integral piece in modernizing our energy system by improving the transmission and distribution of the energy generated.

Last week, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission hosted an informational workshop on smart grid projects utilities in Minnesota are implementing.  Xcel Energy shared the self-healing “smart” substation they built in Merriam Park in St. Paul.  Minnesota Power has developed a system that identifies an outage before customers call to minimize service interruption.  Otter Tail Power has installed technology at feeders along distribution lines that tells the company when there is an interruption to service and reports that in real time to the company and customers via google maps.

There were two common themes during the session. First, to quote one of the utility representatives: “There’s a lot of visions out there for what a smart grid should look like, but not enough elbow grease.” This was in reference to the reality that for utilities implementing smart grid projects they are often playing the role of tester of the new technologies providing feedback to vendors as they go to make the products more robust.  One of the reasons this is happening is because of the second theme: grid technology is changing rapidly.  Xcel Energy’s Merriam Park station was built in the 1950s and still operated largely on technology from that time until the recent “smart grid” upgrades Xcel made; including, microprocessors, wireless service and infrared cameras designed to tell the utility when something isn’t working (“self-heal”) before the system breaks down.  For Minnesota Power, their project was pushing boundaries on whether or not they should switch from wired to wireless communication in their more rural service territory.

One of the most exciting smart grid technologies, utilities said, was “Voltage Var” which has the potential of increasing the efficiency of the transmission grid by several percent by installing technology that reduces energy load by smoothing out the voltage running through the lines and reducing energy loss.  According to GeneralElectric, if installed by a utility serving 500,000 customers with 160 distribution substations, the technology is designed to reduce electricity consumption by the equivalent of 29,000 homes and avoid the equivalent greenhouse gases of 39,000 cars on the road each year.  GE also predicts it will save $20 million in generation and maintenance costs for the utility over the product’s lifetime.

The other message that resonated from all of the utility representatives was summarized by Xcel Energy as “innovate at the rate of customer value.”  In other words, with technology changing faster than ever in how our electricity grid operates, utilities are faced with the same dilemma the consumer is with purchasing a new electronic device, like a laptop, but with a much longer commitment to the purchase.  Utiliities want to invest in the technologies that are going to stand the test of time.  It’s an exciting time to be thinking about how we modernize our energy system, not just from where we generate the energy (transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables), but also how that energy reaches us at our homes and businesses.

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