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Smart grid a ‘go’: Marblehead wins $1.4 million federal grant

By Nikki Gamer /
Wed Oct 28, 2009

Marblehead - The Marblehead Municipal Light Department got some big news Tuesday, which will revolutionize the way consumers use energy in town.

As part of President Barack Obama’s push for energy conservation, the U.S. Department of Energy awarded $3.4 billion in federal stimulus money to 100 different utilities nationwide in the form of smart grid investment grants; the town’s light department was the recipient of some of those funds.

“This is a really big deal,” said Bob Jolly, the light department’s general manager.

As part of its grant application, the department submitted a project proposal to the DOE worth $2.7 million. The federal government grant is worth $1.4 million, slightly more than half of the proposal’s total; the town utility plans to raise the rest of the money itself.

The only other municipally owned utility in the state to receive stimulus grant money toward smart-grid investments is Danvers Electric, which received $8.5 million. A total of $35.6 million in smart-grid grant allocations were received throughout Massachusetts. 

According to the DOE, the awards amount to the largest single energy grid modernization investment in the country’s history.

“The end result will promote energy saving choices for consumers, increase efficiency and foster the growth of renewable energy sources like wind and solar,” states the DOE’s press release announcing the awards.

The Marblehead Municipal Light Department plans to use the money to switch over all of the town’s 10,000 meters to new smart meters, which will allow each customer the ability to view his or her energy usage in real-time through the Web. The department also plans to begin a pilot program to test out new pricing structures geared at making consumers more aware of peak energy price times. Per the DOE, consumers will be selected at random to take part in the pilot program.

“We’re hoping this reduces costs; that’s the ultimate goal,” Jolly said. “We want customers to understand their usage. The whole goal is to get people to save.”

For instance, the new technology will allow the Light Department to alert consumers to the price of electricity at different times (it can be higher or lower, depending on the hour or season). The consumer could then make the decision on whether to change his or her electricity use based on that information. Jolly compared the situation to airline flight prices; the peak times for flying are often more expensive, prompting some consumers to fly at off hours. The same situation could apply for electricity use.

Jolly explained that nationally, the average consumer uses about 500 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity a month. That amounts to an average household electricity bill of about $70. If a consumer could save 10 percent of that, the savings is $7 a month, or $84 a year.

“I think the potential is even greater than that,” Jolly said.

However, it all comes down to the consumer. If armed with all of the new information, will an average consumer choose to make those changes?

Even Jolly admits, “It’s a large experiment.”

“The downside is that we can’t impact consumers, but we can arm our customers with the information to change their behaviors and understand their electric bill,” he said.

According to the DOE, an analysis by the Electric Power Research Institute estimates that smart-grid technology could reduce electricity use by more than 4 percent by 2030.

Jolly expects to begin installing smart meters in the spring. However, the department has to first meet with DOE representatives to work out implementation of the plan, which will include going out to bid on all of the different aspects of the project.

“There is going to be a lot of work ahead,” Jolly said.

Meanwhile, those within the department will need to be trained in the new technology.

“We’ve got a lot of logistics to work out,” Jolly added.

He also noted that there is a possibility local jobs will be created as the project gets under way. If so, it would be in keeping with one of the primary goals the White House had for the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, one that critics of the Obama Administration have charged has been slow to come to fruition.