The Green Scene

What would it be like to have a "smart meter" that could tell you when it's cheapest to run the clothes dryer, automatically signal the utility company if your power goes out, help you save money, and reduce your carbon footprint? Soon 160,000 Progress Energy customers in the Carolinas and Florida will find out. The federal government has awarded the utility $200 million for "smart grid" projects, including system upgrades, electric-vehicle charging stations and these meters.

Lisa Jackson, who heads the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, announced the grant during a visit to Raleigh on Oct. 29. The company is matching the award with about $300 million. Duke Energy is receiving a similar grant.

"The 'smart grid' is really a catch phrase for modernizing the electrical-grid system from what is, essentially, 19th-century technology to something that's more 21st Century," explains local alt-energy-expert Ned Doyle. In the current system, power companies like Progress and Duke produce electricity and send it out to customers. It's a one-way, centralized system that uses outdated technology, making it difficult for utilities — or customers — to monitor usage and production, whether evaluating how much energy a solar array is contributing to the system or accurately sensing outages or other problems, Doyle explains.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, slow response times in older mechanical switches are one factor contributing to an increase in blackouts and brownouts.  "If the grid were just 5 percent more efficient, the energy savings would equate to permanently eliminating the fuel and greenhouse gas emissions from 53 million cars," the DOE estimates in The Smart Grid: An Introduction.

A modernized, "smart" grid creates two-way communication between the user and the provider, which should benefit both the utilities and their customers. With a smart meter, both the homeowner and the power company get much more detailed information about electricity usage than provided by traditional meters. Smart meters, for instance, can track when power is consumed and charge lower rates at off-peak hours. They can also directly report real-time information about power loss (no more searching for the power company's phone number when the lights go out). 

According to an analysis by the Electric Power Research Institute, installing these meters and other smart-grid technologies could reduce electricity use nationwide by more than 4 percent by 2030 — a savings of $20.4 billion for businesses and consumers, the EPA reports. That's worth $500 million for North Carolina alone, or $51 in utility savings for every man, woman and child in the state.

Jackson adds that modernizing the electrical grid will create jobs, promote more efficient energy distribution and "set the stage for affordable clean energy across the country."

Bill Johnson, Progress Energy's chairman and president, adds, "This grant program has the potential to expand [the] investments necessary to transform the electric grid to give customers greater control of their energy use, enable utilities to harness the potential of renewable energy and electric vehicles, and improve power quality and service reliability."

Asked what this means for the development of alternative-energy sources such as wind and solar power, Doyle responds by acknowledging the huge, long-overdue investment needed to create a smarter grid. He adds: "This is potentially a pivotal moment for local and decentralized power production and distribution." As more alternative-energy sources are installed — by both the public utilities and the private sector — the overall system will becomes less centralized. A smart grid will be better equipped to monitor and to integrate different sources, and also to distribute the power, wherever it comes from. A smart grid "changes the equation," says Doyle, by letting the power companies make money from power distribution and be less reliant on power production for delivering profits to shareholders, and by making it easier for alternative sources to be integrated into the system.

"In other words, combine the growth of alternative power sources with increased efficiency, and that reduces, if not eliminates, the need for building any more new fossil-fuel-powered or nuclear plants," Doyle says.

The old model for power companies was based on the simple equation of producing power and selling it to customers. That model doesn't take into account the social and environmental impacts of where we get most of our electricity in the United States, Doyle says. Nor does it give the utilities much incentive for being more efficient or encouraging customers to do the same.

"I'm not against the utilities making money," says Doyle, who lives off-grid himself. "I just want to diminish our reliance on coal mined from mountaintop removal and other fossil fuels." And while 160,000 smart meters can only cover a small fraction of Progress Energy's 3.1 million customers in the Carolinas and Florida, "It's a start," says Doyle.

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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