Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Coming to a Power Company Near You

Xcel Energy, an electricity and natural gas company based in Minneapolis, has tapped Qwest Communications’ DSL network to carry energy information as part of its “SmartGridCity” project in Boulder, Colorado. The project is intended to serve as a model for the intelligent monitoring and management of electrical power grids in the United States.

The goal of the SmartGridCity project is to increase energy efficiency while reducing the pollution associated with energy production—an endeavor supported in part by the Obama administration's stimulus package, which earmarked $32 billion for grid infrastructure improvements, including $4.5 billion in grants for smart grid-related projects.

Current Group, a power management application and device developer, was contracted by Xcel to establish the monitoring system in the project. Current found that using Qwest’s DSL network was more cost effective to carry the power usage data than broadband-over-powerline, which would require a costly retrofit of Xcel’s grid. As part of the project, the companies placed hardened Qwest modems atop utility poles and connected them to Current sensors via Ethernet cable.

Qwest and Current Group now intend to take their combined solution on the road in hopes of working with other power companies to create smart grids. The challenge, however, will be in convincing these companies that DSL represents the best network solution for the data.

The proliferation of smart meters in the U.S. has resulted in scores of competing technological standards, especially surrounding the means by which the devices communicate with consumers and power companies.

Unless an open standard is established and accepted, power companies risk the costly and time-consuming prospect of sifting through different proprietary devices and relying on trial and error to determine the best network type. Furthermore, they must decide whether to piggyback on existing networks (as Xcel did with Qwest), or create new, dedicated networks.

In the meantime, companies will likely rely on convenient and relatively inexpensive solutions in order to establish a proof of concept to evolve upon. This, essentially, is what the Qwest-Current Group offering represents.

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