On a recent muggy morning, Jeff Myerson, director of business transformation for Houston-based utility CenterPoint Energy (CNP), is pointing to mundane-looking gray metal boxes high on a wooden utility pole. They mask state-of-the-art wireless relays that collect data on customers power use every 15 minutes. Myerson is showing a visitor around Braeswood, a tree-lined neighborhood of several hundred 1950s-era ranch homes about 7 miles southwest of downtown. Its being refitted for CenterPoints intelligent grid. This first phase is scheduled to be completed by yearend at a cost of $138 million, with the help of $50 million from the federal government.
When fully deployed, the grid will encompass a network of sensors, switches, smart meters, and data analysis software that will give CenterPoint more control over and insight into its almost 50,000 miles of power lines. Breaks in the lines typically take hours, even days, to find, particularly in the wake of bad storms. Starting in Braeswood, CenterPoint, which powers more than 2 million homes and businesses, is gaining the ability to almost instantly pinpoint a problem to a single block. It plans to use algorithms that can analyze weather patterns and spot weaknesses in the lines to predict failures. The smarter equipment can also reduce the risk of overload by telling customers when energy costs them the least. Were bringing a mechanical system into the digital age, says Myerson.
The U.S. electrical grid, once one of the worlds great marvels, is crumbling after decades of underinvestment. Valued at $876 billion by the Edison Electric Institute, an industry group, the grid is an amalgam of almost 7,000 power plants that send electricity over 450,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines and 2.5 million miles of feeder lines. All this is managed by 3,300 utilities serving 150 million customers. The grid is arguably the biggest machine on earth. Its also something of a relic, largely built after World War II from designs that date to Thomas Edison. Half of U.S. homes still have mechanical meters that require workers to show up and read them. Most utilities cant analyze their customers energy use beyond the monthly bill.
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