Smart Grid bid brightens state’s future

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By Roger Snodgrass

Los Alamos, arguably home of more gray matter per household than any other county in the country, is playing a central role in a state initiative to catch a wave on a promising green business opportunity.

The Smart Grid is a set of ideas about achieving energy efficiencies while enabling effective energy generation and storage from renewable sources. It’s one of the economic dividends awaiting smart people who can start assembling a more intelligent electrical grid.

“If your lights go off in your house, the local electrical substation doesn’t know,” said DV Rao, a staff scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory. “You have to call and tell them.”

The current system, outmoded and wasteful as it is, can’t fix itself and is not set up to encourage good practices from its customers. Those are among the many shortcomings energy experts are now trying to address.

“If you want to use energy at midnight and want an ‘off peak’ discount, we don’t have such a system.” Rao said, noting that the “intelligence” was not in the electrical system, but rather in the communications systems. Smart metering, home area networks and smart appliances, along with transformative upgrades to the grid architecture, may be able to fill the gaps.

“You can be involved in your own energy management,” Rao said. Testing that hypothesis in an energy forward state, is a premise of the project.

Rao directs the Decision Applications Division at Los Alamos National Laboratory, involved in large national infrastructure questions and emergencies, including some involving the electrical grid. But his immediate priority is writing a technical proposal with a number of organizations, educational institutions and businesses on behalf of the state.

The object is a piece of a $4.3 billion batch of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that the Department of Energy is using to develop ways the Smart Grid can couple information technology to the electric system and give consumers an interactive tool for having and making better energy.

There will be 6-12 of these funding opportunities with a maximum of $100 million over the next 3-5 years. The proposal is due in three weeks.

Tom Bowles, former chief scientist at the laboratory, now on loan as Gov. Richardson’s science advisor is credited by many for having come up with the master plan for converting New Mexico’s vast potential in renewable energy – solar, wind and geothermal – with a new, smarter grid architecture.

Communities are different and have different needs, so New Mexico’s Green Grid Collaboration will bring in three other communities, Taos, Roosevelt County on the Texas border, and Doña Ana in the southeast corner, neighboring El Paso and Mexico.

Andy Erickson, LANL’s utilities and infrastructure facilities operations director has pitched in helping those counties define their needs and visions for the smart grid.

“My viewpoint is how to make business models that will make sense,” he said. He noted that LANL is already doing a lot of things in terms of smart metering and advanced metering that can be shared with the county and the county has it’s expertise to share as well.

Along with the brainpower and commitment of the national scientific laboratory, Los Alamos has a number of advantages for this kind of project.

“Our customers are the kind of people really interested in technology, of course,” said John Arrowsmith, manager of the Los Alamos County Department of Public Utilities.

“We’re fortunate that the local government owns the utility. The regulatory body is right here in town. We have a coordination agreement for 25 years to provide electricity to the laboratory. We have coal generation capacity that we will have paid off our debt by 2015, so we’re looking to integrate more renewable energy sources.”

That might well include photovoltaics for harvesting solar energy, according to preliminary plans.

“The Smart Grid is going to be bigger than the Internet, just because the cost of energy is such a huge part of our economy.” Arrowsmith said, based on presentations he’s heard during the planning process.

New Mexico’s project drew attention with the Smart Grid program. The Governor and congressional delegation protested the original dimensions of the competition, suggesting that the criteria weighed against a small state. When the criteria was adjusted, there still remained a seemingly problematic 50 percent match for the funds.

But Rao doesn’t think the match is much a problem now, partly because of the partnering organizations, including the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO), a major corporation owned by the Japanese government that directs industrial research and development in environmental and energy projects.

“The technology is difficult, but it’s the easiest part of the tasks,” Rao said. “It’s getting people to buy in that’s hard.”