By Doug Struck
Massachusetts is moving toward a future in which you know the cost of electricity before turning on your air conditioner, and you may let the utility company decide to turn the air conditioner off.
Those possibilities are part of a modernization of the state’s electricity distribution lines to create a “smart grid.” The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities late last month approved a proposal that would, if adopted as written, give utilities three years to come up with smart metering or some equivalent technology.
The heart of a smart grid is instant two-way communication between the grid operator and your home, and meters that can give homeowners information about electricity prices that rise or fall with demand.
“An Energy Star refrigerator has a chip in it that can be programmed when you buy it, if you want it to be, so you can say to the utility, ‘when the power gets to be ten times more expensive than the minimum, you can cycle my refrigerator on or off.’ Or ‘change my air conditioning system so it doesn’t go below 78,’” said Ann Berwick, chair of the department.
“Smart meters” and a technologically modern distribution grid for electricity have other benefits, Berwick said in an interview: utilities could reroute power around downed transmission lines automatically, limiting widespread blackouts. A smart grid could more easily accept power from a household’s solar panels or a wind turbine. A utility could connect or disconnect power from a remote office, instead of sending a technician to the site.
“Utilities don’t have very good visibility as to what’s happening either on the gird or in the home,” she said. “It’s a system that Thomas Edison would recognize.”
Massachusetts is among a leading handful of states that are moving to modernize their electricity distribution grids. They are doing so to be less wasteful with power and to accommodate the increase in homes and businesses producing their own power. Grids, designed to be one-way suppliers of electricity, often have difficulty handling power put back into the system by solar arrays or small wind turbines.
But the biggest visible benefit to customers would give them more control and decision-making over their power consumption.
“Currently, the grid is a one-way approach. It’s not very consumer- interactive” said Abigail Anthony, a grid specialist for the non-profit group Environment Northeast. She was on a working group that helped develop the proposal.
She said she envisions a smart grid in which “your home or your business is the center of the energy system. In our homes we will improve energy efficiency, install smart appliances, connect to community wind or solar cogeneration, plug in our electric cars, and get incentives” for using electricity during cheaper off-peak hours.
The commission’s proposal was ballyhooed just before Christmas by Gov. Deval Patrick, but largely lost in the Christmas rush. In a press release from the governor’s office, public utilities Commissioner David Cash said, “with this order, we require the electric utilities to adopt a new business model that is more forward thinking.”
That is a bit premature. Berwick said the commission’s order is a “straw proposal” that may be modified before a final order is issued.
Anthony said the commission is moving in the right direction, but has not adequately set the plate for a smart grid. The regulatory system for utilities must be revised to encourage them to spend the money on the innovative technology that is needed for a smart grid, she said.
“Right now it’s too risky for a utility,” she said. “If they invest in a new technology there is no certainty they can recapture their costs.”
About the green blog
Helping Boston live a greener, more environmentally friendly life.
Christopher Reidy covers business for the Globe.
Doug Struck covers environmental issues from Boston.
Glenn Yoder produces Boston.com's Lifestyle pages.
Eric Bauer is site architect of Boston.com.
Bennie DiNardo is the Boston Globe's deputy managing editor/multimedia.
Dara Olmsted is a local sustainability professional focusing on green living.