The other face of Smart Grid

The “smart” electric grid may be just a little too smart. Once a smart meter is attached to a home, it can gather a lot more data than just how much electricity a family uses.

It can tell how many people live in the house, when they get up, when they go to sleep and when they aren’t home.

It can tell how many showers they take and loads of laundry they do. How often they use the microwave. How much television they watch and what kind of TV they watch it on.

Almost 200,000 smart meters are now being installed between Fort Collins and Pueblo, and across the country 52 million smart meters will be installed by 2015, according to a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission estimate.

“This is technology that can pierce the blinds,” said Elias Quinn, author of a smart grid privacy study for the Colorado Public Utilities Commission.

“Insufficient oversight could lead to an unprecedented invasion of consumer privacy,” Quinn warned in his report to the PUC.

Law enforcement, government agencies and corporations, such as Microsoft and Google, already are eyeing all that data.

The transformation of the electric grid into a smart, sophisticated two-way energy and communication system is seen as a way to better manage power and improve efficiency.

The federal government has put up $3.4 billion to help speed smart-grid development.

The technology, however, poses new questions for consumer and privacy advocates, state regulators and federal officials.

How do you protect the information? Who should have access, and what happens if it falls into the wrong hands?

“Privacy and cybersecurity are among the greatest challenges in implementing the smart grid,” said Nick Sinai, energy and environment director at the Federal Communications Commission.

Tackling privacy issues

Federal agencies and some states — including Colorado and California — are now moving to deal with privacy and security risks posed by the smart grid.

The Colorado PUC opened a docket in August to gather comments on whether the state rules governing privacy are sufficient.

The commission is reviewing the testimony to decide whether further action is necessary, said PUC spokesman Terry Bote.

New rules are needed, said Bill Levis, director of the Colorado Office of Consumer Counsel.

“The Fourth Amendment guards against unreasonable search,” Levis said. “. . . But I don’t think the founding fathers could ever have thought of this kind of stuff.”

Sinai said one lesson from the Internet is that it is cheaper and more effective to build in privacy and security protections at the start.

In the meantime, utilities continue to install smart meters. Xcel is installing 23,000 smart meters in Boulder as part of its SmartGridCity pilot, according to company officials.

By the end of this year, all 96,000 Colorado homes and businesses served by Black Hills Energy will have smart meters, with the help of a $6.1 million federal grant.

Fort Collins has plans to install 79,000 smart meters with the help of $18.1 million in federal funds.

Colorado utilities, executives say, have been collecting and protecting customer data for years.

“The level of data we receive with the smart grid may change, but the privacy principle remains very much the same — specific data stays between us and the customer,” said Megan Hertzler, director of data privacy for Xcel Energy.

Still, Xcel is “getting a lot more requests for customer usage information now that it is seen as more desirable,” Hertzler said.

Most of the inquiries are from companies that want the information for marketing. Xcel has not released any of the data, executives said, and declined to name the companies making the requests.

The key differences between the meter on the side of most houses now and the smart meter deal with time and communication.

Meters are currently read once a month; smart meters take readings every 15 minutes. Future models may take readings every six to eight seconds.

And all that information doesn’t wait for a meter reader. It is instantaneously communicated to the utility by fiber-optic cable, broadband or Wi-Fi.

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Smart Grid City

What is this?

SmartGridCity is the nation’s first fully integrated smart grid community and will boast the largest and densest concentration of these emerging technologies to date. The selected city is Boulder, Colorado.

Boulder is the right-sized city for a project such as this, and offers an ideal mix of residential and commercial customers. It’s home to academic and research institutions (including Colorado University, National Center for Atmospheric Research, and the National Institute for Standards and Technology) already working with this emerging technology and studying long-term benefits.

What companies are working for this project?

Xcel Energy and another companies are  working with a group of public and private partners, including the City of Boulder, on this upgrade. Founding partners in our Smart Grid Consortium include Accenture, Current Group, GridPoint, OSI Soft, Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories and Ventyx.

Xcel Energy has announced plans to build out an entire community that combines traditional and cutting-edge technology to modernize our energy grid and provide new, innovative ways to provide you with the best service possible. SmartGridCity is the nation’s first fully integrated smart grid community and will boast the largest and densest concentration of these emerging technologies to date. Boulder, Colorado has been selected as the site of SmartGridCity.

Now, in September 2009 has completed construction of the infrastructure and launched the remaining software to enable all SmartGridCity operational functions. this step makes it the first fully functioning smart grid enabled city in the world that increases reliability, provides customers with greater energy use information, and allows participating customers and Xcel Energy to control in-home energy management devices remotely when demand calls for it. 50,000 homes in Boulder will soon be decked out with the latest in environmentally-friendly, energy-saving technology — including solar panels, electric cars and, for some, a specialized heating, cooling and lighting system — all of which will be integrated into a monitoring system that reports the home’s carbon footprint to the homeowner.

The SmartGridCity project also included automating three of four distribution substations, four computer-monitored power feeders, and another 23 feeders that are watched for voltage irregularities. Approximately 200 miles of fiber optic cable, 4,600 residential and small business transformers and nearly 16,000 smart meters are now connected to the smart grid system.

The SmartGridCity construction phase on the network “backbone” was recently completed. The collaborative effort involved the resources of the Xcel Energy’s Smart Grid Consortium, including Accenture, CURRENT Group, GridPoint, OSIsoft, Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories, SmartSynch and Ventyx.

A grid-state monitoring system, installed by CURRENT Group, is one of the technologies being used to develop information to proactively reduce outages. By analyzing real-time data retrieved from the sensors deployed on the distribution grid, this system significantly minimizes low-voltage issues as well by automatically detecting them and allowing Xcel Energy to proactively address potential problems.

Xcel Energy will soon be seeking customers for testing of in-home energy management devices. The devices will be used to validate and enhance the customer energy management experience and response aspects of the SmartGridCity pilot project.

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