Here comes the smart grid

The installation of the network that will support CPS Energy’s smart grid initiative began Thursday at select locations around the company’s service territory.

The network is the enabling technology for the smart grid, consisting of devices on CPS Energy’s communications towers, utility poles and substations that will allow CPS Energy to receive energy use information from automated digital meters — aka smart meters.

By next fall, CPS Energy will begin to install roughly 700,000 of these new meters and updating another 300,000, allowing for the two-way communication at the heart of the smart grid.

Once completed, the updated grid will boost electric and gas reliability, give customers more control over their energy use, increase efficiency and customer privacy, reduce costs and better integrate renewables, which has a positive effect on the environment.

CPS Energy’s smart grid upgrades are part of a much larger effort, in Texas and nationwide.

That’s because the nation’s electrical grid, one of the engineering triumphs of the 20th century, isn’t equipped for the 21st century demands now being placed on it. Consider this: Thomas Edison, who created the first electrical grid in New York in 1882, would recognize its basic structure today.

Hard to believe, right? Imagine if the same were true of phones.

And just as advances in the telecommunications industry has revolutionized everything from the way we communicate to the way we do business, modernization of the aging electrical grid is transforming the way we create, dispatch and consume energy.

The network now under construction will create a communications canopy over CPS Energy’s service territory, which includes the city of San Antonio and portions of seven surrounding counties, said Martha Mitchell, director of new programs and services, corporate development and planning.

The network canopy is not a wifi network. It operates at a lower frequency, the same bandwidth as garage door openers and baby monitors, Mitchell said.

In the coming months, customers may see trucks in their neighborhoods as workers install equipment at the tops of CPS Energy-owned poles and towers. They’re from Corix, a subcontractor for Silver Spring Networks, CPS Energy’s partner in the overall project.

The installations will not require any interruptions in service, and will take about a year to complete, said Mitchell. Meter installation is expected to begin by September 2014. The entire initiative is on a five-year timeline.

CPS Energy installed 40,000 smart meters two years ago as part of a pilot program to make sure they work accurately and reliably before installing them system-wide.

With two year’s worth of data, one thing is clear: the meters are increasing efficiency and saving money, as CPS Energy is often able to remotely connect, disconnect and reconnect power to homes with smart meters rather than sending trucks and employees out to do the job.

All the data transmitted from meters to CPS Energy is secure. The utility doesn’t release or sell customer data now, nor will it in the future. CPS Energy will make this data available to the customer via a secure web portal, similar to online banking. Customers can use the information to manage their energy use – or choose not to.

The meters do not allow CPS Energy to remotely control a customer’s electricity use.

National, state and local leaders have recognized the economic imperative of upgrading the grid. In the last 40 years, five major blackouts have  hit the U.S – three of those in the last decade. The Northeast blackout of 2003 caused an estimated $7 – $10 billion in losses in the region.

Such failures have a national security component, too: they could bring communications, banking, traffic and security systems to a standstill.

Those industries rely on uninterrupted power, yet quality problems — such as brief outages or voltage fluctuations that interrupt service — are also increasing, according to the Electric Power Research Institute, and now cost U.S. businesses between $119 billion and $188 billion every year. The grid faces additional challenges as well: integrating increasing amounts of renewable power and preparing for an increased demand from plug-in vehicles.

For all these reasons, grid modernization is underway. In 2007, the Bush Administration signed the Energy Independence and Security Act, which codified federal support for an updated grid. States are enacting their own policies. Texas passed a law in 2007 urging that automated meters “be deployed as rapidly as possible to allow customers to better manage energy use and control costs” and better integrate programs that can respond to rapid changes in weather or demand.

It’s not just happening here. Smart grid infrastructure investment by 45 emerging nations — including India and China — over the next decade will reach $274.9 billion, according to the newly released study Emerging Markets Smart Grid: Outlook 2014.

While much of the grid modernization effort will take place “on the back end” of the system, the installation of automated digital meters is the biggest change that will affect consumers directly.

Already in Texas, more than six million such meters have been installed, giving consumers an unprecedented ability to see and control their energy use. Along with that, however, have come concerns by some about the meters’ accuracy, privacy and health.

That’s a big reason CPS Energy has taken a cautious approach, allowing the utility to learn from other utilities’ and customers’ experiences. One thing the company has learned is the importance of getting timely, accurate information out to customers.

Over the coming months, we’ll keep you updated on the project, post the latest research, innovation and public policies regarding the smart grid. We’ll be visiting neighborhoods, attending community events and keeping our elected officials up to date. Whether it’s through social media, at an event or via phone call or email, we’ll answer all your questions, and share those answers with the rest of our customers.

Email questions to [email protected], use the hashtag #smartgridsa on Twitter, find us on Facebook or just come out for a visit when we start our neighborhood tour.

Tracy Idell Hamilton

Tracy Idell Hamilton was part of the Corporate Communications team at CPS Energy.

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