HUGHESVILLE, Md. (Aug 10, 2009)—Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative (SMECO) has applied for a $40.5 million grant under the federal stimulus package guidelines. If the Department of Energy awards the grant, SMECO says they will use it to adopt and install technologies for the implementation of a Smart Grid that will improve energy efficiency for the Co-op's distribution system and its customer-members.
According to the Department of Energy Smart Grid Investment Grant guidelines, many investments that contribute to Smart Grid operation and performance may qualify for funding. SMECO's proposal outlines plans to install advanced meters on customers' homes and businesses, technologies that provide two-way communications, and hardware that responds to electronic communication. Also included in the grant proposal are the computer programs and software necessary for these systems and that enable both the Co-op to provide usage data to customers and customers to access the data-so that they can reduce their energy usage.
Ken Capps, SMECO's senior vice president of engineering and operations, notes that "A Smart Grid has two major components; one involves the electric distribution system. Right now, our system only works to push energy out to customers. That's its basic function."
Capps explains further, "With a Smart Grid, the electric distribution system is capable of doing much more. We can get real-time, detailed data so we can monitor our system at every level: from switching stations and substations, to individual service lines and homes. We can control our network and monitor end-of-line voltage. We can determine, right from a SMECO office, if a customer's power is out. Smart Grid technology can help make our electric system a self-healing system, one that pinpoints an outage on the lines, and reroutes the power so that more people can keep their power on."
The other major component of a Smart Grid system is the one that most customer-members may have heard about, and that is the one that measures and reports customer usage data. Customers are building bigger homes and using more electric appliances, and they often don't realize how much energy they're using until their monthly bill arrives. Many customers were surprised to find how much energy use increases when the weather gets very cold, as it did this past January.
With this second component of the Smart Grid, communication of customer data is the name of the game, and an Advanced Meter Infrastructure (AMI) plays the major role. With AMI, the utility puts an advanced meter on each home and business, and those meters are smarter than the ones customers have now. AMI technology provides two-way communications to the advanced meters. This enables useful functions that the current meter infrastructure is unable to provide, such as voltage monitoring, outage detection, and on-demand meter readings. A smart meter can collect data every hour and send that data to the utility's meter data management software. With more detailed data, utilities can develop energy rates that reflect real costs, and customers can select a rate structure that best suits their personal energy use. For example, customers could pay less for energy they use at night when energy costs less to generate.
"Just having the ability to see and collect data that we can't get now will move us ahead and help SMECO and its customer-members to better understand and control the flow of energy. And that will help everyone reduce energy usage," according to Capps. "When we have real-time data on how much energy is flowing into our system and how much energy our customers are using, we'll be better able to manage our system."
SMECO has been working with Enspiria Solutions over the past year in order to assess the costs, benefits, and feasibility of installing an AMI system for its customer-members. "With AMI, our customer-members can monitor their energy usage as frequently as they'd like and significantly lower their energy costs," says Capps. The Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC) needs to approve SMECO's business case in order for the Co-op to begin recovering the costs of its investment.
The Department of Energy Smart Grid Investment Grant guidelines stipulate that projects receiving grants must be implemented within three years. Without the federal grant, the time frame for implementing SMECO's Smart Grid project could be much longer. The Smart Grid project SMECO is planning will create several full-time permanent jobs and the grant could save SMECO up to 50 percent of the project costs.