Friday, August 07, 2009

Smart Grid Today features Austin Energy

Austin Energy Readies to Pioneer Next Level of Smart Grid
Smart Grid Today
August 6, 2009

Unlike any other utility applying for a DOE Smart Grid Investment Grant, whatever matching funds Austin Energy gets will be used for a comprehensive approach to a “next-gen” smart grid that Andres Carvallo calls smart grid 2.0. He's the municipal utility's CIO. Austin is asking DOE for about $100 million, he told us during an exclusive interview in his office just across Lady Bird Lake from downtown Austin.

Austin Energy will, by the end of this month, have deployed 410,000 smart meters from Elster, GE and AMI partner Landis & Gyr covering all of its service footprint -- a million consumers and 43,000 businesses.

“Most places have announced they're going to deploy smart meters or put some intelligence on their wires with sensors -- and they'll be done in 2012 or 2015. Boulder is closer. It will be done in 2010,” said Carvallo. “We're done now. And we'll start rolling out pilots for ‘smart grid 2.0' in the beginning of next year.”

“Smart grid 1.0,” as he referred to Austin's initial smart grid plan, took the utility five years to deploy and cost about $150 million. About $10 million of that came from DOE to improve energy efficiency. The muni deployed its first 125,000 smart meters in 2003. “It was all about the seamless integration of the electric grid itself plus all the electric assets we own including power plants -- with a communication network” that includes fiber optic throughout the infrastructure and out to the substation and wireless AMI technology from Landis & Gyr for the last mile, Carvallo reported.
The upshot is “a lot of hardware and software that leverages the gathering of a lot of information to make smarter decisions.”
The 410,000 smart meters can deliver consumption data every 15 minutes -- and will start doing that as the plan moves forward. Austin Energy is testing the meters now and plans to, early next year, “come out with some programs that will allow customers to benefit from some of the investments we've made, in terms of information,” said Carvallo. Data-display partners are not in short supply, said Carvallo, and ongoing conversations on the topic include Microsoft and Google. Austin installed 86,000 remote-control thermostats from Honeywell and Comverge and 2,500 wireless distribution grid sensors from multiple vendors.
Austin Energy, the City of Austin, its chamber and the University of Texas teamed up to create Austin's next-generation smart grid implementation with these firms: Applied Materials, Cisco, Dell, Freescale Semiconductor, GE, GridPoint, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Oracle, the consortium SEMATECH and the Environmental Defense Fund. Comverge, Landis & Gyr and others of that group take part in the next go round, said Carvallo.
Austin Energy began working on its second phase of the smart grid in December, he added. The team is focused now on this question: What happens to the smart grid beyond the meter and into the premises, the homes, factories and businesses?
“The driver of all this vision is that, if that home were to have some form of distributed generation -- like a solar rooftop -- and some kind of electric storage and smart appliances with an electric vehicle or two in it, how would you integrate those assets” owned by the owner of the premises into the grid in a way that you could still have balance on the grid? “Not only are they drawing energy, but they are putting energy back onto the grid,” he added.
The city picked the historic name Pecan Street Project to advertise its intentions: Sixth Street in Austin “is our Bourbon Street,” Carvallo explained, referring to the focal point of live music in New Orleans, La. Sixth Street, too, is a major artery of Austin's famous live music culture -- and its original name was Pecan Street. “The team that came up with the Pecan Street Project name chose it because we are aspiring to have in clean tech the same kind of leadership we have in live music.”

What if cars could talk?

South by Southwest, the enormous music and film festival Austin hosts each year, informs Carvallo's “vision of how the smart grid will be prepared for the future,” he explained, painting this day-in-the-life scenario:
“Imagine that, in 2015, people in 80,000 automobiles come from all over nation to enjoy South by Southwest -- from as far away as Seattle or Washington, DC. Let's imagine that those 80,000 cars are either plug-in hybrid electric vehicles or electric vehicles. As the drivers settle into their seats and enter into navigational systems the destination of South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, “the cars themselves will communicate with the Austin Energy smart grid, identify the characteristics of the vehicles and their batteries and register accounts for the drivers. “With the accounts up and running, our smart grid will provide the vehicles with information around where drivers can charge their vehicle -- including fast or regular speed charging mechanisms at restaurants, hotels and homes.” Meanwhile, the grid will negotiate -- with the vehicles -- prices for those different spots that could take up to 10 hours to charge or as little as two.

Pioneering here is normal

The back-end Austin Energy creates will be able to handle that scenario, Carvallo assured.
“Now, what's really missing is the car having the ability to interact with us,” he said, noting that Austin Energy is working with Mercedes, Ford, GM, Chrysler and Toyota to remedy that situation.
Is that scenario possible by 2015? “Possible? Absolutely,” Carvallo said. “It's going to be a function of how many electric vehicles will be available,” he added. President Barack Obama wants something like 1 million electric vehicles roaming the US by 2015, he added. Folks in Austin are likely to lead by example and switch to electric vehicles, he added.
Austin's involvement in the semiconductor revolution of the ‘80s to some degree shows what can happen in this city, whose skyline is dominated by the Austonian, a 52-story condo tower now under construction and one of 30 downtown buildings connected to the underground chilling system Austin Energy uses to help it shave peak load.
Austin-based association SEMATech (Semiconductor Manufacturing Technology) -- the consortium started by IBM, Sony, Intel, Toshiba and others -- drove the development of the cell9 chip that led to the microprocessor chip that powers X-Box 360s, PlayStations and Nintendos. “Austin Energy is a reflection of a city that's a hotbed of new ideas and new thinking,” said Carvallo.

IBM sees machines helping

The municipal has its work cut out for it. The inevitable deluge of data from a fully operational smart grid, plus the challenge of continuing to provide safe, clean, reliable and affordable power while distributed renewable energy sources are added to the system, creates “immensely complex and difficult operation optimization problems,” Paul Williamson told us. He's energy & utilities solutions architect for IBM and spoke to us this week by phone from his Austin office.
In its proposal to be part of Austin's Pecan Street Project, IBM would help “build the network, define the software and standards and implement that,” around attaching the renewable energy sources and enabling the devices to communicate, said Williamson. IBM sees itself “optimizing businesses processes in the presence of the new distributed energy source,” he added, such as preventive maintenance and outage management, for example.

Low-hanging fruit is huge

Austin Energy is kicking around what's possible in harvesting mw from its service territory -- often referred to as the low-hanging fruit of the movement to manage the coming and continued explosion in electricity demand. “Some people have said it might be a power plant's worth” in Austin, Carvallo said, noting that guesses have gone as high as 300 mw.
That would call for the owners of homes and businesses in Austin to not only better manage energy use but also deploy DG equipment. Widespread adoption of electric vehicles plus the retail-level purchase of smart appliances should follow, Carvallo noted. The utility needs an internal platform that easily integrates what are sure to be scattered moves by its customers.
Electric cars left plugged in at airports for a week or so could become an energy source as the utility could charge them in the middle of the night and draw power from them in the day, Williamson explained. That would help optimize wind generation. “There are all sorts of very interesting business processes around renewable energy generation and storage” and IBM is working on them “very aggressively.”

PSP sees details next month

The Pecan Street Project plans, by the end of next month, to present a report to state regulators and Austin Energy's board of directors “for them to choose exactly how we will go forward,” said Carvallo. Decoupling of the cost of energy use and the cost of producing and delivering power to homes and business is one possibility on the table.
“The thought is you would move the utility from being based on volume of kw hours to really more a of an energy services fee structure,” with a separate charge for T&D, said Carvallo.
Austin Energy today generates, transmits and distributes energy and sells it to wholesale and retail customers. With the addition of decoupling, for starters, the muni's operating model is ripe for overhaul.
Austin Energy may well initiate a marketing campaign to teach its customers and anyone else that is watching about vampire -- or phantom load and how cutting it across the US could have a big impact. Vampire load is the continuous flow of power from generators to support the stand-by mode of electrical devices and appliances in homes and businesses. “With the smart grid concept, we'd want to turn off not only the smart appliances but everything connected to a ‘smart plug,'” Carvallo explained.
Austin Energy meanwhile wants to “accelerate how we take innovation from any third party into our system,” he added.

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