GLOBE SERIES

The Smart Grid at GLOBE 2012

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Source: GLOBE SERIES

VANCOUVER -- 'Smart grid' technology will deliver more efficient and reliable power, although some consumers face rising costs to replace aging electric grid infrastructure, industry experts told the GLOBE 2012 business and environment conference.

A 'small minority' of consumers also still have concerns about privacy issues and potential health impacts of smart grid technology, they told a GLOBE session on 'New Developments in the Smart Grid Sector.'

Advancing smart grids 'is not about elimination of transmission from large centralized (power plants),' at least for another 50 years, said Jim Burpee, president and CEO of theCanadian Electricity Association of Canada. (pictured right)

The overarching goal of deploying smart grid technology is to create a more sustainable electricity system and engage the customer much more, starting with the smart meter, he said.

Ontario is the leader in Canada in smart meters, with more than 1.3 million of the meters installed across Hydro One's system, Burpee said.

One advantage of smart grid technology is being able to restore the grid faster in the event of power disruptions, he said.

The cost of electricity for utility customers is expected to increase to pay for smart grid technology and especially new grid infrastructure such as transmission lines, Burpee said.

Gary Murphy, chief project officer for smart metering and infrastructure for BC Hydro, (pictured left) said that the Crown-owned utility is investing $930 million to install smart meters for all 1.85 million customers.  As of March 2012, BC Hydro had installed more than 890,000 of the meters.

BC Hydro expects the smart meters to save the utility about $520 million by 2033, so future power rates for customers are expected to be lower than they would have been without the meters, Murphy said. (For the detailed business case on the program, see bchydro.com).

Smart meter technology will enable BC Hydro to collect customers' information and make it available to them through in-home displays, mobile handheld devices and a website portal.

The smart meters also have 'anti-theft' protection, which will allow BC Hydro to quickly pinpoint where electricity is being stolen, such as by marijuana grow-ops, Murphy said.

Electricity theft from BC Hydro currently amounts to at least 850 Gigawatt-hours per year or $100 million annually in lost revenue - costs that are borne by all legitimate BC Hydro customers, the utility says on its website.

Smart meter technology also will help identify power outages and pinpoint which customers are still without power in responding to outages, Murphy said.

Eric Deschenes, vice-president of infrastructure business for Schneider Electric in Canada, said the global energy management firm develops technologies to help utilities better manage their electric systems and reduce customers' power consumption by at least 30 per cent.

These technologies include an Advanced Distribution Management System, or ADMS, that BC Hydro is using for, among other things, rapid diagnosis and to balance power demand and supply.

'The energy dilemma is here to stay' in terms of rising demand for electricity, Deschenes said. (pictured right)

Annabelle Lee, technical executive-cyber security for the Electric Power Research Institute in the U.S., told the GLOBE session that the current North American electric grid consists of a 'one-way flow' of electricity and information. The smart grid will enable a two-way flow, she said.

The cyber security component of smart grids is able to run 'What if?' scenarios on power outages, and to also balance the integration of renewable energy sources into the grid, she added.

To encourage installation of the technology, the U.S. American Recovery and Investment Act of 2009 provides grants and awards totaling US$4.5 billion, with matching dollars from utilities, Lee said. (pictured left).

Fitch Ratings says that the total number of smart meters installed by U.S. utilities rose 53 per cent to 70.4 million units in 2010 compared with 45.9 million units in 2008, according to a story by Reuters.

When it comes to customer concerns about the information collected by smart grid technology being a potential invasion of privacy, Lee acknowledged that this is a 'huge issue' in the U.S., with every state having its own law on the matter.

There is an 'opt-out' option in some jurisdictions that allows customers the choice of not getting a smart meter installed, she noted.

Murphy from BC Hydro, whose smart metering program doesn't have an opt-out option, pointed out that smart metering 'changes nothing' about the utility's responsibilities to customers under the BC Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

He said he believes that privacy and health concerns about smart meters are being fanned by a small conspiracy-minded group. For BC Hydro, he added, 'Being on the leading edge is not easy.'

In March 2012, the BC Utilities Commission (BCUC) dismissed an application by theCitizens for Safe Technology (http://citizensforsafetechnology.org/), which is opposed to smart meters, to place a court injunction on BC Hydro's smart metering program. The group contended that the program exceeded the authority of the provincial Clean Energy Act.

The group says it will try to get the BCUC's decision appealed by B.C.'s Court of Appeal(see http://www.peacearchnews.com/news/142808855.html).

The province's Office of the Information & Privacy Commissioner, which reviewed the security and privacy of customer data collected through BC Hydro's smart meter program, concluded that customers' information is secure and that 'people from one household cannot decrypt or read data from another household's meter,' BC Hydro says.

However, Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham also noted that 'B.C. Hydro is required by law to tell their customers the purpose for collecting personal information for the smart meters project, what legal authority they have to do so and to provide contact information for a B.C. Hydro employee who can answer any questions that arise regarding collection.'

'Hydro is not currently meeting this requirement, and we've made some recommendations to help them improve their customer notification,' Denham said in a statement accompanying the release of her report.

BC Hydro says it will address the 14 recommendations as it continues to work with the Privacy Commissioner's office in implementing the smart metering program. (Check here for the Privacy Commissioner's full report).

BC Hydro says on its website that:

  • smart meters cannot detect how someone uses electricity or which appliances are being used; they only measure how much energy a home used or generated in total;
  • BC Hydro will have no access to real-time consumption information. Real-time data will only be made available if someone chooses to receive it.
  • information collected is encrypted, much like with online banking;
  • in-depth security has been designed into the program, and BC Hydro has hired online experts to test its systems and develop the 'strongest possible protections.'

A GLOBE delegate asked the panel about smart meters and potential health effects from being exposed to chronic, low-level radio frequency emissions from the wireless technology.

'We are absolutely convinced that there are no health effects' from BC Hydro's smart meters, Murphy responded, adding that '99 per cent of our customers have no issues at all.'

B.C.'s provincial health officer also has confirmed the safety of the new meters, which are well below Health Canada's exposure limits as well as the precautionary limits set by Switzerland, which has the most rigorous standards in the world.

Smart meters communicate for an average of one minute per day, emitting radio frequency emissions that are less than those from a cell phone, Murphy said.

Someone could stand next to a smart meter continuously for 20 years and receive the equivalent radio frequency exposure of a 30-minute cell phone call, he noted.

However, in September 2011, the Union of BC Municipalities passed a request for a moratorium on BC Hydro's smart meters.

Another GLOBE delegate asked about the state of electricity storage technology in relation to smart grid development.

Deschenes responded that the industry hasn't yet chosen a particular storage technology as the best one to deploy.

Another GLOBE delegate raised the concern about rising costs for consumers to pay for smart grid technology and replacing aging infrastructure.

Burpee from the Canadian Electricity Association acknowledged that this is the industry's 'biggest challenge,' and that there needs to be a national dialogue on this issue.

After the session, EnviroLine asked Burpee why he believes that centralized power generation and transmission of electricity - sometimes over long distances with considerable losses in efficiency - was here to stay for at least another 50 years.

For example, Gary Holden, former CEO of ENMAX Corp. in Calgary, had for years advocated a shift in Alberta from centralized generation using large coal-fired power plants toward distributed generation using cleaner natural gas-fired power plants located close to where the power was needed. (See here).

But Burpee said that centralized generation with transmission infrastructure is the most effective way to provide a 'strong backbone' that is reliable, will meet projected electricity demand and is able to integrate renewable energy sources.

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