“If you build it, they will come” has proven a risky strategy for some smart grid projects. One of California’s largest investor-owned utilities faced the opposite challenge—customers whose behaviors necessitated a smarter grid. Customer involvement in and support for smart grid plans is a major reason SDG&E’s smart grid efforts continue to garner accolades, including the 2012 POWER Smart Grid Award.
|Courtesy: SDG&E |
introduced its new Smart Grid Award in early 2011, money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was still flowing, and there was a lot of industry chatter about smart grid projects, though the vast majority of them just involved meter change-outs. Our inaugural year Smart Grid Award went to Vermont Electric Cooperative (VEC), which demonstrated how a small team of savvy professionals can develop and implement a successful smart grid vision with what many would consider meager resources and industry visibility.
This year, the winner is at the opposite end of the size spectrum and the other side of the country. San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), a Sempra Energy company, serves 3.4 million consumers through 1.4 million electric meters and more than 850,000 natural gas meters in San Diego and southern Orange Counties—a service territory covering 4,100 square miles. SDG&E is making its mark as one of the most comprehensive large-scale smart grid ecosystem developers. The utility has already garnered numerous smart grid awards, but that’s not why we chose it for the POWER Smart Grid Award.
The People Led, the Leaders Followed
Just as VEC proved that a small cooperative can achieve benefits that many larger utilities of all stripes have not, SDG&E’s smart grid experience has also turned accepted wisdom on its head. Large investor-owned utilities (IOUs) in particular have been accustomed to a top-down approach that might glibly be called “Father Knows Best.” For SDG&E’s smart grid plan, the motto is more like “When the people lead, the leaders will follow.”
Obviously, like any other utility that answers to shareholders, SDG&E doesn’t do anything simply because customers ask for it, whether the ask involves more renewable generation or lower bills. Nevertheless, unlike some utilities that have faced heated opposition to the introduction of advanced metering infrastructure (AMI, digital meters with wireless communications capabilities), SDG&E’s customers have largely welcomed its smart grid efforts and are a major, if indirect, driver of them.
SDG&E’s “Smart Grid Deployment Plan 2011–2020” (SGDP) notes that many utilities are taking a wait-and-see approach to smart grid technology deployment. “For the San Diego region and SDG&E, however, waiting is not an option,” it says, because:
- Its customers and many stakeholders have shown consistent support for new renewable legislation, generation technologies, and projects.
- Its customers have installed more megawatts of rooftop solar in San Diego than utility customers in any other U.S. city. By the end of 2011, more than 13,000—more than 1%—of SDG&E customers had installed photovoltaic systems totaling over 100 MW of capacity. (As of June this year, the total was 135 MW, and the forecast for 2015 is 300 MW to 400 MW.)
- Its customers are already taking delivery of Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt electric vehicles, and more Leafs are being sold in San Diego than anywhere else in the country. Ford, Mitsubishi, and BMW have also targeted the San Diego region for their plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) release in late 2011 to early 2012.
- Its customers already have access to interval usage data, and thousands signed up for Google PowerMeter (before it was killed by Google in 2011), and more than 7,500 are using the Green Button (see sidebar).
Integrating a large number of small, distributed renewable generation sources—along with the utility-scale ones necessary to meet state mandates—plus new load types that can also serve as energy storage devices is difficult enough with aging infrastructure. When you add the desire to use energy efficiently and provide incentives for doing so, you’re going to need a smarter grid.
One reason SDG&E has garnered accolades for its smart grid efforts is that the scope of those efforts is broader than at most utilities. Utility grid modernization goals are bound to vary for a variety of reasons, including generation portfolio options, existing infrastructure status, population density and growth patterns, and more. That caveat aside, the most basic smart grid plan would entail equipping the system’s devices with bidirectional communication capabilities and integrating information technology into grid operations and back office systems to enable more timely, wireless, remote access to and action on energy usage and grid health. SDG&E is going beyond the basics.