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Minnesota 2020 Journal: My Smart Energy Grid

December 31, 2010 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

I am part of the smart energy grid. Strictly speaking, it’s the smart water utility grid but I view water and energy issues as inseparable. I have a brand spanking new, radio broadcasting water meter, just installed. I’m excited to leave another part of the 20th century behind, moving forward into a better, more prosperous and more sustainable Minnesota.

Just before Christmas, the St Paul Regional Water Services informed me that I’m getting a new water meter. I knew, from earlier communication, that this was coming. SPRWS is upgrading its entire service area. It was my turn to enter the meter replacement queue.

Water meters are supposed to last 20-25 years. Just eyeballing my old meter, I’d say it’s been at least that long. I’m confident that its measuring accuracy has diminished with age. Since I’m paying for the water I use--no more, no less--I’m all for accuracy. Plus, there’s no immediate out of pocket expense. Meter replacement is financed by SPRWS through cost savings.

The new meters, apart from being more accurate, eliminate manual meter reading and reporting. The units broadcast consumption data via a low-power radio transmitter, triggered by a collections car driving along the street. I suppose that at least a few people view this change as proof of Big Brother’s increasing capacity to monitor our lives. If that’s the case, the new transmission is less intrusive than a meter reader clomping through my house, into my basement, and peering into my laundry room’s darkest corner.

The letter arrived last week but it lay around, unopened, until Monday. I called the 800 number on Tuesday, reaching the contract installation vendor. Wednesday, a polite service technician arrived as scheduled. Within an hour, we had a new water meter.

As much as I love my new water meter, this isn’t about water meters. It’s about sustainability and building a better, more secure future for Minnesota.

Looking forward, we’re going to use at least as much water and electricity as we’re presently consuming. Even if we improve water conservation and reduce energy consumption, technology changes, combined with a growing population, strongly suggest that we’ll consume more water and electricity in ten years than we use today. Is this sustainable?

Well, yes and no. At one level, while the United States is a disproportionately large power and resource consumer, our share will decrease simply because the rest of the world will consume more. That change will cause the US to appear as if it’s being responsible but, in truth, we’re not. We will not, however, be alone in our insatiable demand for water and power.

Whether on a global scale or in a household, we all face the same two energy choices: consume less and produce more. Both challenges require innovation. We cannot realistically decrease energy and resource consumption to the level necessary to meaningfully off-set accumulated planetary impacts. Instead, we must consume more efficiently and produce more effectively.

Fortunately, we’re the species that evolved with the big brains and the opposable thumbs. Human experience suggests that we’ve found innovative solutions to regularly encountered challenges. Conceiving answers—that’s the big brain part—and implementing changes—that’s where the opposable thumb comes in—has served us well. A species-sustaining energy consumption and production solution plays to our strengths.

In Minnesota, that means we need to build a high-capacity power transmission line from southwestern and western Minnesota to the Twin Cities and eastern energy markets. Wind generation capacity is expanding but in the not too distant future, production will exceed transmission capacity. Absent wind power, demand will be met by increasing rather than decreasing reliance on traditional energy generation sources like coal.

I’m a great fan of the smart energy grid. Conceptually, everyone is a fan because it involves more closely monitoring utility use and, based on that, more accurately predicting power load fluctuation. We save energy and money by not producing the energy that we don’t need. This means increased use of smart energy monitoring systems. It’s one thing to simply measure household energy consumption; it’s quite another to break use down by device, then directing power to them as needed.

We already do this on a limited scale by plugging and unplugging devices. Efficiency improvements that reduce or remove that time-consuming step, increase the likelihood that we embrace the change. It’s easy, however to observe the need for improvement. Creating policy that promotes and rewards innovation is a much more difficult step.

Minnesota’s future prosperity requires us to reduce our energy and resource consumption while building clean energy infrastructure. As consumers, we must demand better products. As a matter of public policy, Minnesota must drive harder and faster toward energy innovation. My new water meter is one step towards a smart energy grid. It may be small but it’s a start.

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