5.5 Million Smart Grid Stimulus to MGE Customers

Madison Gas and Electric (MGE) is receiving a $5.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. MGE will use the grant to install technologies to boost efficiency, enhance service and improve reliability for customers.

The stimulus grant will help fund the following projects, which will begin next month:

Advanced metering infrastructure

MGE will install meters capable of two-way communication for all large commercial and industrial customers. The equipment monitors and analyzes customers’ energy consumption patterns on an hourly, daily and seasonal basis. The information will be used to educate customers about their energy use and how they can conserve energy and lower emissions. The meters also will be used for outage notification and tracking power quality.

Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles support

MGE will also install a network of up to 18 public and 25 residential charging stations for electric and electric hybrid vehicles in the Madison area. MGE will study the impacts of vehicle charging on the electric power grid and on home energy use and demand.  

Distribution management

MGE will also install new distribution/management capabilities. During an outage, MGE system operators will be able to quickly identify the best options for restoring and rerouting power to reduce outage times.

MGE generates and distributes electricity to 138,000 customers in Dane County, Wis., and purchases and distributes natural gas to 142,000 customers in seven south-central and western Wisconsin counties. MGE’s parent company is MGE Energy (Nasdaq: MGEE). The company’s roots in the Madison area date back more than 150 years.

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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.

Learning about impact of the Smart Meters on electricity use

In recent months 131,000 households and businesses in nine near west suburbs and in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood have received new Smart Meters in preparation for a pilot program to examine the impact of new technology on electricity use.

This week, ComEd kicked off a public education campaign about the program with its first informational meeting for Oak Park residents at the village’s public library.

Smart Meters are expected to help consumers monitor and reduce electricity use and their carbon footprint while helping utilities adjust distribution and eventually reduce the number and duration of power outages. The new meters are the first step toward the creation of a “smart grid,” which uses a digital system rather than a mechanical one to communicate power needs and problems along the lines.

The pilot program will run from June 1 to May 31, 2011. In early June residents will be able to log on to a new Web site to see how much power they used the previous day and how much it cost them. The site will also include ways for residents and businesses to reduce their usage, said Larry Kotewa, a senior engineer with CNT Energy, a division of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, which is working with ComEd on the project.

Smart Meters were installed well in advance of the pilot program to make sure the system is up and working, Kotewa said. The meters will send digital signals to ComEd every 30 minutes rather than having someone physically read the meter once a month. In addition, any power outage in a home will be reported back to the utility immediately.

For now, the 8,000 households with monitors will remain capped for the pilot program, said Alicia Zatkowski, senior manager of communications for ComEd.

Similar information sessions about ComEd’s pilot program will be held in the other participating towns: Bellwood, Forest Park, Melrose Park, Maywood, Broadview, Berwyn, River Forest and Hillside. The next informational meeting will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Berwyn Public Library, 2701 S. Harlem Ave.

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