Power co-ops launch $5 million 'smart grid' project

  • Article by: DAVID SHAFFER
  • Star Tribune
  • May 1, 2012 - 9:06 PM

Three Minnesota electric cooperatives said Tuesday that they hope to flatten some of ups and downs of power demand with "smart grid" technology.

A $5 million demonstration project, funded half by the co-ops and half by the U.S. Energy Department, will pay for software to better track and manage demand. In about 130 households, co-ops will test battery storage technology and variable pricing to reduce peak power use.

"We have to think about changing our business model, and it can't be just about selling electricity," said Gary Connett, director of member services and demand-side management for Great River Energy, the wholesale power co-op based in Maple Grove. Great River hosted a round table Tuesday with smart grid experts to discuss the project.

The two local power co-ops participating in the 4-year project are the Minnesota Valley Electric Cooperative, which serves 35,000 customers in nine counties, including three in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, and Lake Region Electric Cooperative, with 26,000 customers in and around Pelican Rapids, Minn.

Smart grid refers to a range of technologies, often coupled with advanced data collection, mainly to reduce demand during daytime peaks while shifting some power usage to the night, when wind power is more consistent.

The technology includes smart meters that can communicate power use to utilities and homeowners. The co-ops already use the meters in many homes, along with other load-management technology such as hot water heaters that run only at night and store enough for all day.

Connett said the federally funded project will build on those efforts by developing load-management software that will benefit Great River Energy's 28 local cooperatives.

For the first time, he said, two-way communication will be possible between devices such as air conditioners that homeowners have placed in load-management programs. That will let the utility know instantly whether such programs are reducing demand.

In the Lake Region service area, he said, the co-op will seek 100 volunteer households to sign up for "dynamic pricing" in which their electricity will be billed at the actual, constantly changing price from the grid.

These customers will get in-house data displays allowing them to track demand and price. Those who can shift some power use -- by charging electric cars or running dishwashers on overnight timers, for example -- stand to benefit from nighttime electric rates that can be nearly two-thirds lower than in the day.

The project also will pay for battery storage units in about 30 homes, with the goal of testing whether such technology offers a benefit to customers or the utility. The $10,000 battery packs will be purchased from Silent Power Inc., an energy storage company based in Baxter, Minn. The co-ops plan to begin soliciting homes to test the units soon.

The Minnesota initiative is part of a 12-state effort by power co-ops to develop and evaluate smart grid technology coordinated by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and half funded by $34 million in Department of Energy grants.

David Shaffer • 612-673-7090

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