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Lessons From a Failing Smart Grid

XCel Energy’s SmartGridCity project was supposed to turn Boulder, Colorado into the ultimate smart grid hub. But that’s not how it’s turning out.

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Smart grids are supposed to be the future of our aging electric system. And XCel Energy’s SmartGridCity project was supposed to turn Boulder, Colorado into the ultimate smart grid hub. According to a 2008 press release from XCel, Boulder would become a city that could “support easily dispatched distributed
generation technologies (such as plug-in hybrid electric vehicles with
vehicle-to-grid technology; battery systems; wind turbines; and solar
panels)” through a “robust, dynamic electric system
communications network, providing real-time, high-speed, two-way
communication throughout the distribution grid”.

But that’s not what happened. Now, while the project is almost finished, only 43% of Boulder residents
have smart meters. That’s not bad for an average American city, but
pretty dismal for a supposed smart grid leader. Meanwhile, project costs ballooned from $15 million to $42 million (not counting operation and maintenance costs) thanks to unforseen obstacles with permits, software, tree trimming, and rock drilled through to install fiber optic line, according to Earth2Tech.

It’s hard to say what caused the failure. Smart Grid News points the finger at bad project management. For example, it says, XCel failed to perform a simple cost-benefit analysis before beginning the initiative. And since the company never filed something called a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity (CPCN), the Colorado Public Utilities Commission couldn’t cap costs on the project.

Nevertheless, SmartGridCity’s website remains upbeat, with assurances that we “can expect to hear more news on several trial
programs in 2010, including in-home technology tests, pilot pricing
rates, plug-in hybrid electric vehicle road tests, added Web tools
and special MyAccount features designed for Boulder residents.”

We’re not holding our breath. A word of advice for future smart grid cities: take it slow and don’t promise too much. Otherwise, residents might grow wary of the smart grid concept–which, considering our aging electric network, would be a dangerous development.

 

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Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.

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