It takes a powerful incentive to get me into my car to drive through morning rush hour to hot, smoggy, industrial Irwindale on another beautiful breezy beach day here in the South Bay, but that's just what Southern California Edison provided on Thursday.
I was invited to attend a special summit at SCE's Energy Eduction Center and Smart Energy Experience Facility on the future of the smart grid. SCE filed its smart grid deployment plan with the California Public Utilities Commission on July 1 and was looking to share its vision and plans with the public through what it called "an event to gather the top minds in the media on the subject." Somehow, my name got on the list.
Maybe it's because I've been a proponent and advocate of the smart grid concept since I first started learning about it in 2008. If you're working to increase energy efficiency and the use of solar, wind and other renewable forms of electric power generation, then you need a smart grid to manage the mix reliably and effectively.
Right now we're essentially using a "dumb grid" that relies on old 20th century analog hardware and in many ways 19th century technology and thinking.
But a smart grid is based on 21st century high-tech digital hardware and software. Its goal is to modernize electricity transmission and distribution and make them more secure, more reliable, more efficient, more interactive and more renewable.
SEC brought out their best and brightest to give us the lowdown on how they're going to take the Smart Grid from brilliant concept to everyday working reality. First up was Doug Kim, the utility's director of smart grid planning and energy storage who likes to say he works on "future stuff."
"Ten to twenty years ago," said Kim, "people weren't even imaging any of what we're now doing."
Although Kim said that the building and deployment of the smart grid is a long journey that will take 20 years, "things have to be happening now. It's not time for debate," he declared. "It's time for action."
I asked Kim about SCE's sense of urgency based on our state's Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32) and its mandates to dramatically cut our greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, as well as our need to do so based on the accelerating impacts from climate change already being felt.
Kim said the utility feels such a sense of urgency on those fronts that it's also responding to our state's renewable portfolio standards mandates calling for California to generate 33 percent of our electricity from renewable sources by 2020—just eight and one-half years from now. Currently (no pun intended), we get 19.4 percent of our energy from wind, solar geothermal and other renewable sources.
The smart grid's ability to integrate and distribute intermittent renewable power—whether it comes from a homeowner's rooftop solar system or a field of industrial size wind turbines—was just one of the new grid's breakthrough attributes Kim was excited to talk about.
SCE wants to use the grid to empower customers to manage their energy use more efficiently and economically by linking devices, components, communications networks and systems—including solar and wind generation, distributed energy storage, smart appliances, electric vehicles (EVs) and smart meters.
When it comes to energy storage, the problem with electricity has always been that there is no way to inventory it and save it for later use. That, however, is changing with advances in lithium ion batteries that make today's EVs possible, and on a much larger scale with projects like SCE's Tehachapi Wind Energy Storage demonstration. Funded by a Department of Energy (DOE) grant, the project will store the electricity generated by huge turbines in the Tehachapi wind farm for later use when the wind isn't blowing.
Others are demonstrating energy storage storage systems for large scale solar using molton salt to store the sun's heat that is later converted to electricity, enabling solar power to generate electricity 24 hours a day. Such energy storage is a game changer; if it works out, it will end worries about days when the sun isn't shining and the wind isn't blowing. Community-scale and even home-sized energy storage systems will also be a future connection to the smart grid.
The first mile on the long road to a functioning smart grid is the installation of the smart meters at end user facilities, and so far , Smart Connect Director Ken Devore told us.
Besides eliminating the need to send someone to physically visit your meter and record the data, smart meters also save the cost of those visits as well as wear and tear and maintenance on the vehicles that carry the personnel. Even more importantly, the pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from those vehicles are eliminated as well.
By the end of 2011 about 2 million SCE customers will start getting the first capabilities of smart meters including next-day online breakdowns of your energy use by hour, and "Budget Assist" alerts when you reach your self-selected energy goals. Eventually with advances in the smart grid, interactive smart appliances will turn themselves off and on—if you opt in to allow that—to take advantage of off-peak lower rates and remote capabilities from your smart phone.
Remarking on privacy concerns regarding the low-powered wireless transmitters in smart meter, Devore said that security levels are on par with Defense Department and financial institution protection.
As for , I've had my own home's smart meter tested by SCE experts with sophisticated equipment. The transmission level is far below that of my cell phone, my cordless home phone, my home WiFi network and my microwave oven. A video of my smart meter testing experience is being produced by SCE, and I look forward to sharing that video and the story of the filming with Patch readers soon.
Unlike in Northern California and PG&E's smart meter rollout, very few individuals and no local governments in Southern California have opted out of smart meter installations, reported Devore.
The SCE smart panel's third presenter, Ed Kjaer, is famous in the electric vehicle arena and someone I've been listening to at EV conferences and public events since 2008. Nobody knows more about plug-in electric cars and trucks and what they mean to the grid than Kjaer, and no one is more realistic and pragmatic about what's possible, what's headed our way, or how long it's going to take to get there than he.
Ed's got the unique perspective of someone who has spent the first half of his career in the auto industry and his second half working for SCE.
Among the key points he made in Irwindale:
- The current grid has a lot of excess capacity since peak power needs are only reached a few hours a year
- That excess capacity has room for 150-160 million EVs tomorrow to connect to the grid off-peak with no power problems
- When you fuel your EV with electricity, it's 100 percent domestic, made in the USA
- Electricity is 99 percent petroleum-free
- As we add more and more renewables to the power mix, the grid gets cleaner and cleaner and EVs get cleaner along with it
- Charging EVs off-peak corresponds with when we achieve peak wind power production
- It's going to take a long time before EVs make a serious dent in replacing the 220-240 million internal combustion engine-powered cars on the road
- It's also going to take a long time before technology like vehicle-to-grid sharing of power back and forth between electric cars and the smart grid is going to happen—if it happens at all
- 70 percent of car owners commute 40 miles or less per day.
Kjaer sees the transition to electric cars as a generational issue that will involve our kids and their kids after them to complete. And he advises a judicious approach when it comes to building public charging infrastructure as opposed to a full speed ahead, "build, build, build" course of action.
We'll get our first Southern California look at how the smart grid is going to work in a real community thanks to another DOE grant funding SCE's Smart Grid Demonstration Project in Irvine. The project will combine solar PV power generation, energy storage at the neighborhood and home level, plug-in vehicle charging, smart appliances and energy efficiency and monitoring technologies and attempt to make sure everything integrates gracefully together. SCE's approach, according to Doug Kim, is to "learn. Demonstrate. Plan to deploy."
It's merely enlightened self-interest to be rooting for SCE's smart grid success whether you're a customer of theirs or not. We need to add as much renewable energy to our grid as quickly as possible and to cut the pollution and greenhouse gases currently emitted when coal and natural gas are burned to generate electricity.
The smart grid is essential technology for our future survival. The sooner it's deployed, the better chance all of us in the South Bay and the rest of Southern California will have of doing so.