Someday soon, our water heaters and air conditioners will be synced with our power companies. Together they’ll be constantly coordinating, communicating usage by the hour, generating detailed billing reports, and pulling power from the most efficient sources–be they wind, the grid, or solar panels from our rooftops. This communication is facilitated by the smart grid. It promises strides in energy efficiency. And it’s not possible without telecommunication networks.
The smart grid is the future of urban energy consumption. The term itself describes an integrated network of smart meters, power companies, sensing and measuring devices affixed to power equipment, wireless mesh networks, and other technologies all roped into the delivery of power on a citywide level. These technologies all communicate with each other to perform a number of tasks, each related to streamlining the delivery of electricity.
The smart meter, for example, will replace mechanical meters and make recording of energy consumption much more efficient. Water, gas, and electric metering will occur with an automated system, one that automatically collects consumption and transmits it via telecom infrastructure to the power company. The power company and the meter communicate back and forth remotely, meaning personnel don’t have to make the trip out to the meter. Also, the accuracy of the data–the power company can know immediately if you have a power shortage or can see exactly when you tapped into the power grid–will make delivery efficient and billing transparent. All of these things are easily monitored. Consumers can, for instance, see how much electricity they use during peak power times, which is the most expensive time, and cut back on their usage.
The smart meter is but one facet of the smart grid, which is a broader concept that envelops all power services delivered by the city. Once implemented on a citywide scale, the smart grid will be always evolving with new technology and integrated communication. In doing so, energy delivery will control for less and less waste. The smart grid, for example, enables greater use of variable energy sources such as wind, hydro, and solar. It will account for homes that have solar panels installed. Or it will deliver wind energy in a way that optimizes it for the most windy times.
Austin, Texas has one of the most advanced smart grids in the nation. Since 2003 Austin Energy has invested millions in the infrastructure, building in telecom networks and building out smart meters, sensoring equipment, and automated distribution devices. As of 2009 the company deployed, serviced, and monitored 500,000 devices in real-time, 1 million consumers and 43,000 businesses. The investment will soon let the Austin Energy reap savings and income from peak pricing, time-of-use pricing, prepay pricing. It will also be able to offer new energy management services related to demand-side management.
According to Andres Carvallo, CIO at Austin Energy, the smart grid has not been cheap or easy.
“Well, you don’t say, ‘We’re going to build a smart grid overnight – here’s hundreds of millions of dollars, rip everything out and build it from scratch,’” he said. “It’s a project that comes together as you look at how to improve the different front-of-the-meter and behind-the-meter aspects of your operation. You need to assess your legacy systems. You need to assess the requirements of the market, and where the industry is heading in terms of capabilities. And you need to refresh the infrastructure that is managing your service delivery – everything from your SCADA systems to your outage management systems to your GIS, your ERP and your CRM. All these products and systems need to be integrated.”
Telecommunications companies are just starting to get on board, which is promising for the future of energy efficiency. AT&T recently announced a partnership with Elser, a smart meter company, and plans to look seriously into “comprehensive end-to-end wireless solutions for utilities.” The pairing will allow AT&T to use its distribution area networking from AT&T’s high speed, cellular data network to communicate with Elser’s advanced metering infrastructure. Steps such as these are necessary and imminent. Telecom companies should recognize the economic incentive of utilizing their networks for energy monitoring, and hopefully in doing so, they will help pull the consumers into more efficient use of their power.