A Power Grid Smartens Up

That’s the headline that an editor at MIT Technology Review popped onto my story (topping TechReview.com today) on a project to turn Boulder, Colorado’s power system into the world’s smartest grid. The punch phrase would be pronounced ‘schmahten up’ by my old boss at Ferranti-Dege, a professional photo shop in Harvard Square that finally gave way to the digital revolution and Boston’s soaring property values just a few years ago. And Bill’s sentiment would fit perfectly: You know how to do it right, so get to it.

Electrical engineers have the wherewithal to install smart meters and otherwise upgrade our power grids to deliver power more efficiently and accomodate intermittent but clean renewable energy. As utility IT chief Mike Carlson told me this week: “We’re not talking the Jetsons or Star Wars here.”

What is needed–and where Carlson’s project for Xcel Energy truly innovates–is a way of getting the required demonstrations paid for. To date conservative public utility commissions in state capitols around the country have been relucant to finance much-needed investments in grid modernization, without the kind of proof that Xcel hopes its Boulder project will provide.

That’s an emerging theme: Public utility commissions have immense control over investment in power infrastructure, but have a bottom-line mentality that tends to override environmental concerns. This is one factor delaying adotpion of coal gasification technology for power plants. The coal gasification or IGCC power plants are cleaner-burning but more expensive to build up front and, barring an EPA mandate to even consider the technology, public utility commissions have been relucant to approve the extra expense. 

For the full scoop on Boulder’s smart grid, click “A Power Grid Smartens Up”

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