Power Electronics

Projects Assess Impact of Smart Grid Technologies

Earlier this month, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) launched a regional initiative to test and speed adoption of new smart grid technologies intended to make the power grid more resilient and efficient. Through this initiative, known as the Pacific Northwest GridWise Demonstration projects, PNNL researchers expect to gain insight into energy consumers' behavior. At the same time, the projects will test new technologies designed to bring the electric transmission system into the information age. The results of this project could influence how power utilities operate, how customers decide to use power and how power-hungry appliances are designed.

About 300 volunteers on Washington's Olympic Peninsula in Yakima and in Gresham, Ore., will test equipment that is expected to make the grid more reliable, while offsetting huge investments in new transmission and distribution equipment. A new combination of devices, software and advanced analytical tools will give homeowners more information about their energy use and cost. Researchers want to know if having these tools will cause homeowners to modify their behavior.

Approximately 200 homes will receive real-time price information through a broadband Internet connection and automated equipment that will adjust energy use based on price. In addition, some customers will have computer chips embedded in their dryers and water heaters that can sense when the power transmission system is under stress and automatically turn off certain functions briefly until the grid can be stabilized by power operators.

"The technologies we're testing will turn today's appliances, which are as dumb as stones with regard to the power grid, into full partners in grid operations," said Rob Pratt, GridWise program manager at PNNL in Richland, Wash.

The year-long study is part of the Pacific Northwest GridWise Demonstration, a project funded primarily by the Department of Energy (DOE). Northwest utilities, appliance manufacturers and technology companies also are supporting this effort to demonstrate the devices and assess the resulting consumer response.

In the pricing study, automated controls will adjust appliances and thermostats based on predetermined instructions from homeowners. The volunteers can choose to curtail or reduce energy use when prices are higher. At any point, homeowners have the ability to override even their preprogrammed preferences to achieve maximum comfort and convenience.

"We believe this project is the first to provide pricing data on a very short time scale—approximately every five minutes—and the first to include the true costs of transmission and distribution within that price," said Pratt.

Currently, most utilities charge a flat rate per kilowatt hour to homeowners, regardless of the wholesale cost of power or the cost of transmission and distribution. Pratt and other researchers will analyze how customers react to the real cost of delivering energy to their homes through the use of simulated electric bills and pretend money in a mock account. Eventually the funds in the mock account will be converted into cash the customers get to keep.

The communications, computer and control technologies provided by IBM, Invensys Controls and others can help customers become an integral part of power grid operations on a daily basis. In the portion of the demonstration focused on the smart appliance technology, a computer chip developed by PNNL is being installed in 150 Sears Kenmore dryers produced by Whirlpool Corp. The Grid Friendly Appliance Controller chip could help prevent widespread power outages by turning off certain parts of an appliance when it senses instability in the grid—something that happens on average once daily.

Shutting down the heating element for a few minutes while the drum continues to tumble would likely go unnoticed by the homeowner. But this action would drastically reduce power demand within the home. Multiplied on a large scale, this instant reduction in energy load could serve as a shock absorber for the grid. It would give grid operators time to bring new power generation resources on-line to stabilize the grid—a process that usually takes several minutes.

At the end of the study, researchers will evaluate customers' reactions to the chip and their responses to the real-time pricing information to determine their acceptance. This will help government and industry determine whether and how to best make the technologies more widely available to consumers in the future.

Pacific Northwest GridWise Demonstration participants include: Bonneville Power Administration, PNNL, Portland General Electric, PacifiCorp, Clallam County PUD, City of Port Angeles, Mason County Public Utility District #3, IBM and Whirlpool.

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