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Not least among the many factors feeding the recent buzz about a new national energy order is the dawning of a technology that allows communication between appliances and the systems that deliver power to them. Falling under the banner of “efficiency,” so-called smart grid technology holds the promise of maximum control and flexibility for utility users on a scale that is almost science fiction.
At least one energy company in the Northeast sees it as a reality. In March, the Westborough, Mass.-based energy provider, National Grid, announced plans to file its proposal to build and operate a smart grid pilot program in the city of Worcester, Mass., with the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities.
The pilot, which will involve approximately 15,000 customers, is believed to be the largest and most comprehensive in New England. The two-year pilot will provide customers improved energy-use information, automation and savings as well as an unprecedented amount of choice and control over how they use energy.
The pilot satisfies the company’s obligations under Massachusetts’ Green Communities Act, which requires utilities to submit proposals and develop smart grid technologies. If approved, the company will begin to develop the program immediately.
Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Ian Bowles underscored the irony in the need for this new technology.
“Today, we can all manage our cell phone plans, but not our electricity use,” Bowles said. “Smart grid technology is a tool that can help consumers and reduce environmental impacts. The sooner we learn how to use it, the better.”
National Grid’s pilot will cover more than 1 percent of its Massachusetts customer base and includes a wide variety of customers, single- and multifamily as well as small businesses from urban, suburban and rural settings with variable electricity usage. The pilot’s broad customer base will allow the company to include a sufficient number of electricity distribution substations to test a variety of infrastructure configurations that include overhead and underground electrical devices. The pilot also will test the addition of distributed generation and builds in options for adding renewables and plug-in hybrid vehicles to the system.
Under the pilot, all customers will receive a smart meter, and as an option, customers can have additional equipment installed in their homes that includes special programmable thermostats and other devices that provide data and support energy management.
Participating customers will be asked how they prefer to receive their energy information—though text message, from the Internet or on a PDA—and arrangements will be made for them to view and monitor energy consumption on a real-time basis, providing information that allows customers to use less energy during peak periods. Additionally, customers will have the option to receive a new rate plan that allows them to save money during periods when electricity use is at its highest across the region.