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Smart grid in the heartland

Trust, transparency, listening and options suddenly are "in."

Where the heck is this, you ask? Answer: Naperville, Illinois. (You know I'm not referring to Washington, D.C.)

Naperville and its municipal electric utility have embodied these principles in a new "Customer Bill of Rights."

Of course, medium-sized municipal utilities often begin their smart grid journey with a solid basis for customer engagement. After all, the customers own the utility and alignment of the two parties' interests is a no-brainer.

But let's give Naperville and its citizen-utility owners credit where it's due. I spoke earlier this week with Mark Curran, director of public utilities-electric for the city, who patiently answered my every question. 

Naperville is a city of about 140,000 people, 30 miles west of Chicago. This past January, the Naperville city council (aka the utility's governing board) adopted a four-point "bill of rights" that guarantees the customer's right to be informed, to privacy, to options and to data security.

That means easy access to clear explanations of rate structures and rate options, data on the financial and operational aspects of utility performance and tools to actively manage electricity consumption. Individual usage data is private unless an individual opts to release it to third parties. The process and purpose of data collection will be transparent. Etc.

Yesterday I wrote "Data Protection for Consumers," in which Sue Kelly, general counsel for the American Public Power Association (APPA), pointed out that municipal utilities such as Naperville must vet their policies against the unintended consequences of state open records and consumer information laws, as well as state constitutions. I pressed Curran on this issue and he said that Naperville's staff attorney had indeed given the vetting process due diligence.

This "bill of rights" is just one fruit of long efforts Naperville has undertaken to modernize its grid, Curran told me.

In 1992, the city's growth and aging infrastructure led to SAIDI ratings (System Average Interruptible Duration Index) that reflected outages lasting an average per customer of 120 minutes.

The city embarked on grid modernization and reduced SAIDI to 18 minutes per customer. Switches were automated. Commercial buildings received redundant supply lines. A SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) system connected elements of the system to a central control facility. More than 90 percent of the city's distribution lines are now underground. (Naperville has purchased power from ComEd but soon switches to the Illinois Municipal Electric Agency.)

Enter the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) in 2009. Naperville won an $11 million Smart Grid Investment Grant, matched by the utility's capital dollars. The city's project will install 57,000 smart meters, an AMI (advanced meter infrastructure) system with mesh network for data backhaul and IT architecture to handle dynamic pricing programs (plus opt-in, incentivized, direct load control and demand response programs) and secure delivery of customer usage data to individuals. The business case conservatively calls for $46 million in utility savings over 15 years.

With this history, the community had a jump on approaching citizen-customer outreach on the implications of the latest project.

The city commenced outreach during the grant process and in the eight months that followed its agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy, the council tackled the privacy issue. A series of meetings and open houses led to iterations of the "bill of rights," with criticism and dissent accommodated. (Curran had not heard of Ontario's "Privacy by Design" process, extensively documented here in "Data Privacy Issues," and "Data Privacy Issues: Part II.")

Minor pushback focused on the city's pursuit of an ARRA grant or the radio-frequency health issue, according to Curran. (Bench tests of meters will include transparent tests to establish that the meters emit less RF radiation than other common household appliances.)

The "bill of rights" was adopted in January and only now is the city testing its meters and AMI system in preparation for a pilot this summer, followed by a one-year rollout of 57,000 meters beginning this fall. A high-touch communication plan will keep citizens informed. Meanwhile, the city is developing a Web portal for citizens to check their usage that is intended to be live when each new smart meter appears on a residence. The city has adopted the slogan "Plug Into Choice," to emphasize the opt-in nature of its approach.

Naturally, I pressed for "lessons learned" and Curran confessed that so far things have gone smoothly and it's "too soon to tell." We both chuckled nervously when I suggested that Naperville may encounter speed bumps in the implementation phase.

As a journalist, I'm not overly fond of "win-win" "success stories," as they often gloss over the nitty gritty. Perhaps the fact that I find Naperville's pursuit of self-determination worthy of your attention is a sad commentary on Americans' pessimism about the efficacy and efficiency of self-government. Here's an encouraging, contrary example.

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily




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