March 31, 2010 By Russell Nichols
Photo: Tallahassee Mayor John Marks, right
Of all the smart electricity grids rolling out locally across the country, Tallahassee's forthcoming advanced metering system might be the smartest.
This fall, the city's public utility will launch a smart grid that encompasses electric, natural gas and water services -- the first of its kind in the country to combine all three utilities in one network. On a backbone of 220,000 smart meters, a communications infrastructure, data collection software and smart devices, the system will enable the city and customers to save money and manage their power use like never before.
The technology, for instance, will allow customers to control thermostats remotely, choose their ideal electricity price rates and compare energy use data. They can sign up for a monetary cap for their accounts or receive a text or e-mail alert when their usage level approaches a preset limit. They can also do activities like laundry at off-peak hours to get cheaper rates. The city's utilities staff will be able to remotely pinpoint electricity outages and water leaks for quicker repairs.
"Our focus has always been the customer," said Reese Goad, Tallahassee's director of utility business and customer service. "Having all three systems under one umbrella, we'll be able to tell them the total cost of utility services, and view in real time the amount of utility services they're using."
Last fall, the U.S. Department of Energy selected Tallahassee as one of 100 entities nationwide to receive a piece of the $4 billion set aside for smart grid projects in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, touted as the largest single energy grid modernization investment in U.S. history. Grantees have to match at least 50 percent of the funds, but the government believes the money will help modernize the nation's energy grid, support renewable energy sources, stimulate the economy and create jobs, according to Jen Stutsman, a spokeswoman with the U.S. Department of Energy.
"We think the smart grid has the ability to improve the reliability and security of electrical systems," Stutsman said, "to improve the efficiency of how electricity is transmitted to consumers and give them information about the energy use in their homes."
But Tallahassee is a standout star. The city received and matched the $8.8 million in federal funds to bolster a smart-grid energy management system, consisting of a comprehensive demand response program that includes smart thermostats and in-home displays.
"One of the reasons Tallahassee is different is that once the metering and communications infrastructure is completed, the city will operate the first electric, water and gas smart grid in the country," Stutsman said. "A number of cities have moved toward that, but this is going to be on the forefront of combining all three systems in one network."
The timeline for Tallahassee's utilities project spans five years, starting in 2005, when the City Commission directed staff to evaluate the potential of smart grid system. On the cutting edge of a burgeoning industry, the commission moved forward with plans to develop a system in 2007. In the next 15 years, Goad said, the city will earn $1.5 million in net present value savings.
"We started the investment in smart grid technology before it took off as a smart concept nationally," Tallahassee Mayor John Marks said last fall. "That's important for our customers as the bottom line is that they will be able to save energy, save water and save money."