Smart grid that controls utility use comes to KC
By CHAD DAY
The Kansas City Star
It’s a 98-degree August day. Air conditioners along Prospect Avenue near 42nd Street are running at full bore.
Suddenly the whirring stops, all at once, without anyone touching a thermostat.
Someone miles away at Kansas City Power & Light decided residents on this block could stand a slightly warmer home for a while to save energy.
That’s the future, and it’s called the smart grid. Someday it could be in your own home and in millions more nationwide.
Kansas City’s urban core in the Green Impact Zone will be the testing ground for advances in the smart grid, which is the name for a project to upgrade electrical devices in your home and upgrade power lines in the area.
“The rest of the country is looking to Kansas City to lead on this,” said Danny Rotert, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Kansas City Democrat who has been the driving force behind the green zone.
Boulder, Colo., already has installed an advanced smart grid designed to reduce energy costs and provide the potential for renewable energy.
Now KCP&L is looking to try the next generation of smart grid in the green zone, the $200 million effort to make 150 blocks in central Kansas City more energy efficient.
“The green zone is really a sandbox to deploy some of these newer technologies,” said Chuck Caisley, a KCP&L spokesman.
To simplify, think of power lines becoming two-way, like the Internet. That lets you see in real time how much energy you’re using, and possibly cut back. And it lets utility companies monitor — and at times control — how much power you’re using.
Sound scary? It does to some utility watchdogs and others who fear hackers or terrorist attacks.
But half of KCP&L’s grid already allows for a dispatcher to send messages to customers’ meters and then receive a message with information about how that meter’s working. That also allows the utility to see immediately where power outages have occurred.
KCP&L posts that information on its Web site and is working to upgrade the rest of its grid to allow real-time monitoring.
The green zone is expected to go much further, experimenting with some new smart-grid ideas:
•Networks that allow the utility to adjust appliances, such as lowering a water heater’s temperature when it’s not in use so it cycles fewer times.
•Thermostats, appliances and meters that the utility can signal to reduce energy use during peak times, such as on hot days. KCP&L already adjusts the thermostats of about 34,000 customers in Missouri and Kansas as part of a voluntary pilot project.
•Meters that show customers, in real time, how much they are spending on energy.
•Devices that allow KCP&L to see how much energy is being produced by home solar panels and small wind turbines. KCP&L would then be able to efficiently coordinate the energy being used by appliances in the home.
The grid also clears the way to distribute unused electricity from home solar panels and plug-in electric cars. There’s the potential for a home to become its own energy plant, contributing to the grid and then getting paid for that contribution, Rotert said.
The smart-grid approach has collected some critics, including those who fear it allows power companies to intrude, like Big Brother, into the lives of their customers.
Some customers are squeamish about signing up for programs that give control of their appliances to their utilities, said Mindy Spatt, spokeswoman for The Utility Reform Network in San Francisco.
“I think people certainly are worried that the utility companies are making decisions for them,” Spatt said.
Such concerns are one reason KCP&L’s pilot projects have been voluntary. It’s still up to customers to sign up, even in the green zone.
“None of this stuff at present is being forced on customers,” Caisley said.
Customers who choose to take part in the pilot project have the opportunity to opt out on days when they need to have a cooler home.
And KCP&L notifies them by e-mail when it has nudged their thermostat.
Hackers, however, could cause mass outages.
Weapons equipped with an electromagnetic pulse could knock out smart grids, said U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, a Republican and a former research scientist from Maryland, at a House subcommittee hearing last month.
Security is vital when transitioning to a smart grid, said Energy Secretary Steven Chu in an interview with The Associated Press.
“If you want to create mischief, one very good way to create a great deal of mischief is to actually bring down a smart-grid system,” Chu said. “This system has to be incredibly secure.”
As with the online banking, the utilities have put in place firewalls and other security measures to safeguard against hackers, said Jay Birnbaum, a senior vice president at Current Group, a Maryland smart-grid software company that helped design the Boulder project.
The government is prepared to spend a lot of money. In June, the Department of Energy freed up about $3.9 billion in stimulus money for smart-grid technologies.
The grid in the Green Impact Zone probably would cost tens of millions of dollars.
Some of the green-zone devices will make the cut for wider installation on the grid in the future, said Mike Deggendorf, KCP&L senior vice president for delivery.
Once the bugs are worked out and KCP&L sees which applications customers like, some of those smart devices could be making their way into the homes of the more than 800,000 KCP&L electricity customers.
“This allows us to see what parts are particularly effective and spend our time and money wisely,” Deggendorf said.