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Get ‘smart’: Grant would bring big changes for Marblehead electric customers

By Nikki Gamer /
Wed Oct 14, 2009

Marblehead - If the Marblehead Municipal Light Department gets what it wants from the U.S. Department of Energy, there could be a revolution in the way energy is consumed in the town of Marblehead.

In April, the DOE announced that it had received nearly $3.4 billion as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. That money is being put toward a new “smart grid investment program” offered through infrastructure grants to electric utilities nationwide.

In an attempt to receive some of that money, in August, the Marblehead Municipal Light Department submitted a project proposal to the DOE worth $2.6 million.

If that proposal goes through, the DOE would fund about $1.1 million of the Marblehead project, with the town utility raising the rest of the money.

The grant money would be put toward overhauling the power grid’s informational system.

“Not only would we be using less energy, but we’d be using energy more wisely,” explained Bob Jolly, the department’s general manager. “Out of it we save money and we save on greenhouse gases and reduce our carbon footprint.”

Wicked Local photo by Nikki Gamer
Metered change: If the Marblehead Municipal Light Department
receives the federal stimulus money it has applied for, it could mean big changes for its customers.

Jolly called the grant a “big deal,” and said it could have huge repercussions for consumers.

That’s because one component of “smart grid” is “smart metering.” If it gets the money, all of the department’s 10,000 meters would be switched over to smart meters.

Gone would be the days of monthly meter reading, as the department’s new technology would allow the department to communicate with the new meters directly and instantaneously.

Consumers would have the ability to track their own energy use online, on a day-to-day, moment-by-moment basis. In turn, consumers would have more information on which to base their energy-usage decisions.

“A lot of this is very new technology,” Jolly said, adding that most grids in the U.S. have yet to employ this type of system.

In fact, according to a, a Web site devoted to energy modernization, only a small percentage of U.S. meters are “smart.” However, smart-meter use is expected to grow 15-20 percent annually

But smart meters are only one component of any smart-grid system.

“Smart grid is not just smart meters,” explained Vivek Mohta, director for energy markets at the state’s Department of Energy Resources.

Mohta is involved in facilitating bringing energy-related stimulus money into the state.

He explained that through smart-grid projects, utilities could offer home automation — meaning that with a customer’s consent, the utility would be able to remotely control household appliances.

It would also be able to make consumers aware of peak times for energy prices.

With all of the new data, the Light Department could potentially offer different price structures to influence consumer behavior. For instance, it could offer incentives for customers to use less energy at peak times. (Electricity is priced different depending on the hour or season).

In the end, the hope would be that if consumers were made more aware of their energy consumption, they would be more likely to change their habits to save money. The added benefit to the town (and the world) would be that less energy is used.

But it all depends on whether the consumer is willing to make the changes based on all of the newly available information.

“What it really comes down to is knowing what you’re using and when you’re using it… If you know what it is, when it is, you can change your habit and make decisions — better decisions,” Jolly said.

Another component to the smart-grid program, explained Mohta, is that utilities would have additional sensors or additional communicators on their grid, giving the utility the power to make better decisions about managing its system. For instance, the new technology would allow the Light Department to track and manage power outages succinctly.

“The fact is that information technology allows us to do stuff faster, better and cheaper,” Mohta said.

The idea of smart grid is not entirely new to the Marblehead Light Department, however.

According to Jolly, the department has been running its own pilot program since 2005.

“We’ve been experimenting with about 30 to 50 meters by looking at customer usage,” Jolly said. “On a small scale, we’ve been educating ourselves.”

Jolly thinks that since the department has been testing the waters on its own, its chances of attaining the federal money are that much better. If it is awarded the money, the idea is for Marblehead to be used as an example for other communities.

“We felt we could be a good demonstration here in Marblehead,” Jolly said.

Jolly added, “This is cutting-edge technology. We’re hopeful that we’ll receive a grant.”

As part of the application process, local legislators, including state Rep. Lori Ehrlich and Congressman John Tierney submitted commitment letters backing the project, Jolly said.

According to Mohta, Danvers Electric has also applied for the smart grid grant money. Further, the state’s four investor-owned utilities, National Grid, Unitil Corp., NStar and Western Massachusetts Electric are all trying to expand their own smart-grid programs. (They each started pilot programs under the state’s 2008 Green Communities Act.)

However, demand for the money has already exceeded what has been allotted. The DOE was initially slated to allot funding in three waves. Yet according to a DOE September announcement, it had to cancel the third wave of grant allotments because of a burst of interest. Jolly thinks they might even move to cancel the second wave of funding, meaning that it is fortuitous the department submitted early.

“We had a short window to pull together an application, and we think we did a pretty good job of getting it done,” he added.

The DOE is expected to hand down its decision Nov. 1.