Stimulus powers up ‘smart grid'
Oct 28, 2009 - Tom Fowler - Chron Energy
Two Houston companies landed nearly $220 million in federal stimulus funds to bolster “smart grid” projects aimed at improving power system reliability and helping consumers use less electricity.
CenterPoint Energy, which operates the power distribution system for the Houston area, was awarded $200 million to speed up its work to replace all 2.2 million customer electric meters with digital equipment that can be remotely monitored and controlled.
Electric retailer Reliant Energy will get $19.9 million to roll out products that will use the advanced capabilities of the meters to help customers monitor their power use and choose billing plans based on the times of day they use electricity.
The projects were among 100 nationwide that will split $3.4 billion in grants from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. President Barack Obama unveiled the winners during a tour of a massive solar power project in Florida on Tuesday.
Obama said investment in the nation's power grid is long overdue and called it essential to ushering in a future of clean, renewable energy.
“There's something big happening in America in terms of creating a clean-energy economy,” Obama said.
He said a modern grid could give consumers better control over their electricity usage and costs, and spur development of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.
The federal grants will be matched with industry funding for a total investment of more than $8 billion. The government estimates the projects will create tens of thousands of jobs and reduce overall power use.
The funds will cut two years off CenterPoint's 5-year, $976 million rollout of the smart meters, said CenterPoint spokeswoman Leticia Lowe, and reduce the total amount assessed customers through their monthly electric bills to pay for the upgrade.
Since early this year, customers have paid an extra $3.24 monthly charge. After two years, the payment will drop to $3.05 but will continue for several more years.
The funds will also go toward the installation of equipment to help automate the rerouting of power throughout the area's electricity distribution system during outages.
Reliant Energy will use its funds to roll out a handful of services to customers with smart meters, including a weekly e-mail update on electric usage, an in-home device to monitor electricity use and costs in real-time, ways to communicate with home appliances designed to work with the new technology, and retail power plans that charge less for electricity customers use during times of low demand.
Glen Stancil, Reliant's vice president for strategy and development, said the company hopes it can attract and hold customers by offering them tools that help lower electric bills.
“We believe being better informed about energy use is something customers want,” Stancil said.
CenterPoint has installed 100,000 smart meters in the Houston area with plans for an additional 45,000 by the end of the year.
In the Dallas area, electric grid operator Oncor applied for $315 million to speed along its smart grid projects but didn't win any of the grants. Oncor spokeswoman Carol Peters said the company was “disappointed for our 3.4 million customers” who would have seen their project costs reduced, but that the projects will continue on schedule.