President Barack Obama wants to speed the arrival of a "smart grid" to replace the nation's aging electrical distribution network. To make it happen, he doled out $3.4 billion in federal grants this week, including $200 million to Progress Energy.
The North Carolina-based company will split the grant 50-50 with its affiliate business in Florida, Progress Energy Florida of St. Petersburg.
"This is quite significant money," said Rob Caldwell, who holds the daunting title of "vice president of efficiency and innovative technology" at Progress Energy. "A grant of $200 million to Progress Energy and $3.4 billion to the industry is huge."
Progress Energy has already earmarked $320 million of its own resources to smart grid development, so another $200 million from the feds increases the company's commitment by more than 60 percent.
So, no pressure, Rob, but when are you going to fix everything in Electricity Land? Those who recall the country's extensive Northeast blackout of 2003 and California's electricity shortages in 2001 — clear signs of our doddering electrical grid — are all ears.
Let's first get on the same page. A "smart grid" describes a modernized electric transmission and distribution system — enabled by digital technology — that delivers detailed, real-time information about energy use to customers.
Most consumers like you and me get a monthly electric bill in the mail that shows in a bar chart how much electricity we used in recent months. That's as "smart" as it typically gets.
A true "smart grid" is still probably 10 years away from widespread adoption. But the power industry, universities including the University of South Florida and area companies like Draper Lab are all pushing to make it happen sooner.
So armed with new money, what is Progress Energy Florida doing?
According to Caldwell, the company plans to test 80,000 "smart" meters in Florida homes that allow two-way communication between the household and the utility. A top goal is to find ways to reduce peak demand, during times of heaviest use, when electricity is most expensive to produce and deliver.
Caldwell says the more information a grid can communicate to a utility, the smarter the grid can be managed.
"If we collect data from 1.5 million meters in Florida every 15 minutes (rather than once a month now by reading a meter), that's 8 billion pieces of data we would need to be able to process," Caldwell says.
Separately, Progress Energy will test in a small slice of St. Petersburg a system capable of turning on local generators to supplement energy demands at peak times.
And it plans to test sensors on its existing electrical grid that will communicate voltage fluctuations and even outages more quickly back to a central command post.
Caldwell's bullish on smart grids but reminds me how complex each little step can be.
Want appliances to turn on or off based on links to the electric grid? Then we need standards adopted and technology built into those appliances to make it possible. Then we have to wait for consumers to replace existing appliances with new ones.
Small wonder we're talking years before we see substantive changes.
Across Tampa Bay, where is TECO Energy's Tampa Electric Co. in this latest smart grid frenzy? The Tampa power company says it considered seeking a federal grant, then chose not to do so. But it has some grid projects of its own under way.
For example, it's installing smart thermostats at no charge in homes as part of its "Energy Planner" demand reduction program, allowing customers to control their energy use according to time-of-day electric rates. And it has installed switches that talk to each other when there's an outage and can automatically reroute power.
The Electric Power Research Institute estimates that if we implemented smart grid technologies on a national scale, we could reduce electricity use by more than 4 percent by 2030, a savings of more than $20 billion.
Not exactly a windfall when split among millions of consumers. But the old grid needs updating anyway. Doing it this way boosts reliability, reduces the demand for more power plants and gives you much more information to better manage your electricity use.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.