On the morning of May 27 a team of six IBM employees with expertise in Smart Grid technology presented to a crowd of City of Boulder officials, including seven City Council members, business representatives, and clean energy activists the results of their three-week long, gratuitous study of the Smart Grid installed in Boulder by Xcel Energy. “Boulder is 90 percent of the way there,” the IBM team declared, while cautioning that the system’s potential cannot be fulfilled until household appliance manufacturers incorporate standard automatic digital communications devices into their products and consumers learn how to take full advantage of the Smart Grid.
The IBM team is part of a $50 million a year philanthropic effort by the company called the Smarter Cities Challenge that provides the time, technical skills and knowledge of its employees to cities to address particular technological problems, but not grants or loans of money. The City of Boulder applied to IBM to have it examine and evaluate its Smart Grid system. This year, the team said, 24 cities around the world have been accepted into the Smarter Cities Challenge, including eight in the United States.
The Smart Grid system installed by Xcel deployed 200 miles of fiber optic cable covering 23,000 residences, 4,600 smart transformers, and 24,000 smart meters, the team reported. The smart meters transmit data on individual customers’ energy use to Xcel every 15 minutes. The fiber optic cable can probably be productively used for 20 or more years, the team said, whereas the smart meters are based on rapidly changing technology and might become obsolete in as little as 18 months.
The team said that the Boulder Smart Grid system was installed by Xcel as a cutting-edge, demonstration project starting in 2007 and would probably be built somewhat differently today. It significantly increases the reliability of the electrical distribution system, the team claimed, and makes repairs quicker, easier, and cheaper.
However, so far it has had very little direct impact on Xcel’s Boulder customers and has failed to provide many functions that knowledgeable observers have claimed an advanced Smart Grid should possess, such as the capacity for customers to adjust their energy usage during the day and night as demand and prices change, the capacity to aggregate customer demand, the capacity to integrate many different sources of renewable energy into the distribution system, and the capacity to charge the batteries of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) and receive electricity from those batteries when the PHEVs are idle.
The IBM team identified ten “capability gaps” in Boulder’s Smart Grid, and recommended that the city first try to fill two or three of those gaps in collaboration with other knowledgeable, local institutions, such as the National Renewable Energy Labs, the University of Colorado, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and Xcel. The “capability gaps” which the team proposed the city address first were renewable energy integration, near real time data access, and integration of PHEVs. One of the team members asserted that charging a PHEV imposes about the same demand on the electrical utility as serving eight to ten refrigerators concurrently.
While most of the audience listened attentively to the presentation, a few renewable energy activists expressed dissatisfaction with it and claimed that it lacked enough detailed analysis and recommendations to be useful to the city.