Engineering a Smart Grid For Energy's Future

Jay Birnbaum, senior vice president of Current Group, explains that a smart house needs a smart grid to realize greater energy efficiency.
Jay Birnbaum, senior vice president of Current Group, explains that a smart house needs a smart grid to realize greater energy efficiency. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
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By Kim Hart
Monday, April 27, 2009

Current Group, a Germantown-based technology firm, has taken over a nondescript house in Bethesda and turned it into a laboratory for smart-grid technology, the system the company believes will bring the nation's electricity grids into the digital age.

In the front yard stands a utility pole hooked up to a special transformer that connects the power lines to high-speed Internet. Hundreds of sensors attached to the lines monitor how power flows through the home. That information is then sent back to the utility company.

The process, Current says, lets a utility more efficiently manage the distribution of electricity by allowing two-way communication between consumers and energy suppliers via the broadband network on the power lines. Based on data they receive from hundreds of homes, utilities can monitor usage and adjust output and pricing in response to demand. Consumers can be rewarded with reduced rates by cutting back on consumption during peak periods. And computerized substations can talk to each other so overloaded circuits hand off electricity to underused ones, helping to prevent blackouts.

"Utility companies are deaf, dumb and blind to the problems on hundreds of thousands of lines in local distribution areas," said Jay Birnbaum, Current's senior vice president. "These are extremely old grids, and the technicians don't know how to measure what's going on."

Smart grid technology aims to change that.

Some utility companies, including Pepco in Maryland and the District, have launched initiatives to give consumers data about their energy consumption habits in an effort to lower energy bills. Smart-grid technology takes such programs further by automating electricity distribution, which proponents say would make grids more reliable and efficient.

By partnering with utilities, the company hopes to tap into $4.5 billion in stimulus grants intended to spur smart-grid development. When he announced the funding, President Obama pointed to a project in Boulder, Colo., as an example of a successful smart-grid experiment. Current is one of the companies working on the project.

The Boulder project also involves Arlington-based GridPoint, which provides software and information technology services to help run the smart grid, and Accenture, best known in the Washington area for government consulting work.

GridPoint's product lets utilities and consumers measure how energy is being used by appliances or air-conditioning systems in a home. Karl Lewis, GridPoint's chief strategy officer, said the online software will be even more useful when folks need to charge plug-in electric hybrid vehicles.

"A utility may give you an incentive to not plug your car in at 7 p.m. so you aren't using energy in a peak period," he said. "Instead, maybe you'll plug it in at 2 a.m. and, in return, you may pay lower rates.

"You can see how much your A/C system is costing every month, and how much you can save by turning your thermostat up two degrees," Lewis added.

Smart-grid projects require many components -- digital meters and software systems, for example -- allowing both smaller and larger firms to compete. Current started out aiming to provide broadband service over power lines, but shifted to providing the grid communications system when utilities' adoption of Internet via power lines was slower than expected. GridPoint initially produced appliances to store energy produced by solar panels.

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