Smart-grid supporters ready to deploy

By:  Thatcher Moats
Rutland Herald

MONTPELIER -- “Smart-grid” technology has a vital role to play as Vermont and the nation move toward a greater reliance on renewable energy and away from foreign oil and electricity derived from coal, according to state and federal officials who spoke Tuesday at a conference in Burlington.

The smart-grid technology would allow Vermonters   to closely monitor their home energy use, curtailing consumption when there’s high demand, so utilities don’t have to purchase as much power from coal-burning plants out of state.  

“As is widely known, one of the great energy challenges facing our nation today is modernizing an aging, inefficient and inadequate electric transmission system,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, the keynote   speaker.

The conference was sponsored by the University of Vermont and the Sandia National Laboratories, and the goal of the two-day event was to bring together officials from government, industry and academia to try to establish Vermont as a leader in “energy innovation and smart grid deployment.”

Officials hope the event with Sandia — a research facility based in New Mexico focused on energy security — is the start of a long-term relationship between the laboratory and UVM. Sanders is trying to secure funding to establish a permanent “Sandia-Vermont Center for Excellence” at UVM focused on energy research.

The partnership between UVM and Sandia has already begun, but officials hope it can become permanent.

Vermont is a perfect place for Sandia to get “real-world” experience with smart-grid technology because a major effort is already under way to deploy the technology in Vermont using $139 million that has come from both the federal government and the state’s utilities, Sanders said.

Vermont’s utilities have begun the effort to deploy smart grid technology, but then it will gain greater momentum this summer and fall.

Larry Reilly, president and CEO of Central Vermont Public Service, said his company is planning to start installing the “smart meters” that are essential to a smart grid in October. CVPS is the state’s largest utility and serves about 160,000 customers.

“The roll-out will take most of next year,” said   Reilly.

Reilly said the smart meters will gather detailed information about a customer’s energy use so the customer can go to a web page and see their energy   use in real-time. Customers will also be able to see when energy is less expensive and combine information about consumption and price to reduce their electric bills, officials said.

“It will be the end of 2012 before customers start to see the benefits,” said Reilly.

The technology will also allow utility companies to quickly pinpoint outages rather than waiting for a customer to call them to report they don’t have electricity.

“When we’re talking about a smart grid, we’re talking about laying a communication system over an electric system,” said Liz Miller, the commissioner of the Department of Public   Service.

Sanders and others spoke in grand terms about the need to use more renewable energy and create jobs in the renewable energy industry. They believe smart-grid technology has an important role   to play in the expansion of renewable energy.

Smart-grid technology would allow Vermont and the rest of the country to produce more energy from resources like wind, solar, biomass and geothermal, officials said, because an upgraded system would be agile enough to deal with generators that only intermittently produce power.

The smarter grid could make electric vehicles more practical, cutting dependence on oil and helping cut greenhouse gases, officials said, and Gov. Peter Shumlin is intent on creating the infrastructure for electric cars.

“We want Vermont to be a leader on plug-ins,” said   Shumlin. “I ask us to remember we cannot move fast enough,” Shumlin told those gathered at the conference.