Public and private utilities are upgrading the nation's electric power generation and transmission infrastructure to create a “smart grid,” a combination of new technologies that improve the quality of energy information obtained from the electric grid, but local governments play a key role in the process, too, according to the Alexandria, Va.-based Public Technology Institute (PTI). PTI has released a tutorial on how cities and counties can promote smart grid development and how they will benefit from a stronger power supply.

PTI released its “Smart Grid 101 for Local Governments” tutorial on Aug. 4, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). “Smart Grid 101” explains how a smart grid would improve the reliability of the power grid, improve customer service, increase capacity for plug-in electric vehicles and improve response to electric outages, according to PTI.

Last year, the Sacramento, Calif., Municipal Utility District (SMUD), which serves eight local governments, received $127.5 million from DOE to help fund a $308 million project that includes the installation of smart meters — meters that maintain electronic communication with the utility to automatically report problems and control use — as well as several other new technologies. Most of SMUD's smart grid projects will be completed by 2013, says Jim Parks, program manager for the utility's Smart Grid Department.

Some groups, such as the San Francisco-based Utility Reform Network (TURN), oppose smart grid technologies, especially smart meters. TURN claims smart meters do not actually help reduce power use and, because they can be hacked, they pose a threat to utility customers' privacy. However, SMUD's smart meter project development manager Erik Krause says smart meters are protected by military-grade encryption, and, while helping customers reduce their monthly bills would be a welcome benefit, SMUD's primary interest in the smart grid is to improve operational efficiencies.

Parks says SMUD will not have to raise rates to install the new technology. Additionally, he says smart grid technology could eventually lower energy costs in general. “I see this as an opportunity for us to increase control over our system such that we can reduce the need for expensive infrastructure,” he says.

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