Green

PG&E exec: Why the smart utility must evolve

As the grid gets smarter, it also gets more demanding of utilities, who will have to work overtime to catch up, according to Kevin Dasso, senior director of transmission and distribution at PG&E.

“As we’re striving for smart grid people assume we have a dumb grid now. The reality is we don’t have a dumb grid, it’s just designed to do things the way we had intended 10 or 15 years ago,” Dasso said, speaking today at a fireside chat at the GreenBeat 2010 conference taking place today and tomorrow at Stanford University. Dasso was interviewed by Stephan Dolezalek, managing director at VantagePoint Venture Partners.

PG&E has rolled out smart meters in the past, and also it on track to purchase 33 percent of its energy from renewable resources by 2020. Nowadays, PG&E is preparing itself for the creeping onset of solar panels on rooftops and electric cars plugged into homes. Though they won’t make that big of an impact at first, the utility is searching to build out solutions that won’t overtax the grid.

One problem: clustering — if an entire neighborhood that’s not built for high energy use begins to see more solar panels and electric cars, it can cause andoverload.

“The way (solar panels) push power out to the grid is they raise voltage,” Dasso said. If several panels are raising voltage at the same time, it can cause the solar panels to “trip offline.”

As utilities strive to go green and deal with the unique issues posed by the smart grid, they have to work smart. Take electric cars — one electric car charging is the equivalent of the load of “two houses,” Dasso said.

“If we did it the brute force way we could just add more transformers, adding capcity to the grid. To serve 100,000 electric vehicles in the service area brute-force method we might have to invest $150 to $175 million,” Dasso said.

But PG&E figured they could spend less than 20 percent of that by working smarter — using pricing signals to communicate with car owners best times to charge, pricing information and “offering new products and services through smart meter devices.”

Of course, those new products and services require a good bit of consumer education — in fact, even before new products hit consumer doorsteps, Dasso said.

But why should utilities go green at all? For Dasso, the two biggest drivers for utilities to go green are government mandates like California’s AB 32, which was upheld after Proposition 23′s defeat last night, and demand from consumers who are “more and more interested in ways they can have a positive impact on the environment or ways to manage their bill.”

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