When Xcel Energy announced a few days ago that it had selected Boulder, Colo. as “the nation’s first fully integrated Smart Grid City,” it represented a vitally important step toward creating a low-carbon energy network.

Photo: Aidan M. Grey via Flickr

Xcel previously announced its intention to stage the largest and most comprehensive deployment of smart grid technologies in the U.S. ever, and now it says it has targeted Boulder for a several-year effort that will cost up to $100 million. The aim at a comprehensive system is precisely what makes this a breakthrough.

Smart grid technologies exhibit the classic network effect. Deployed individually, some can still have valuable benefits, as the personal computer did before the internet. To maximize benefits, however, they must be put together. Because this requires an overall systems transformation, and because such changes generally pose all sorts of chicken-and-egg challenges, the smart grid has been slow to catch on in the U.S. (France and Italy, who have more centrally managed electrical systems, have managed to advance farther.)

Xcel’s effort deploy smart grid technologies throughout Boulder, a city of 100,000, promises to be a seminal demonstration of what the smart grid can do, documenting the benefits it can bring for customers and utilities. Here is a graphic depiction [PDF]. Xcel has pulled together an impressive consortium to develop Smart Grid City including Accenture, Current Group, Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories, and Ventyx.

In the notoriously innovation-averse electrical utility industry, a demonstration of success on a large scale is just what it could take to bust the smart grid loose. Industry executives are not the only ones who must be convinced. Xcel views Boulder as a pilot for smart grid deployment across its eight-state territory, and they will employ results to persuade utility regulators to allow investments in new technologies. Skeptical utility commissions have proven a significant obstacle in the past.

Unleashing the smart grid is about an energy revolution as profound as the information technology revolution of the last 30 years. Really, it is about the information revolution coming to energy — the smart grid adds a backbone of digital sensing, communications, and control. The technologies that enable this are diverse and complex, from smart meters and controls allowing buildings to adjust their power demand in response to the grid, to smart substations improving power regulation, to sensors providing granular information on grid operations.

This digital backbone will give the grid crucial capabilities it does not have today that are vital to reduce carbon emissions:

  • To integrate an “internet” of smaller-scale, distributed energy resources such as solar panels, wind turbines, and combined heat and power units.
  • To charge fleets of plug-in vehicles in ways that do not overstress grids and which create energy storage networks from parked plug-ins.
  • To control power usage in order to reduce peak demands, thus eliminating typically dirty “peaker” plants plus power lines.
  • To regulate power flow through the grid in ways that reduce the 5 to 10 percent line losses that characterize most power grids.

My only caveat at this point is the number of qualifiers in the press release — technologies “could” be deployed; “up to” $100 million could be spent. It will be important to track follow-through on the part of Xcel and its consortium of partners. But there is no doubt that this is a significant announcement with huge potential implications for general transformation of the power grid into a low-carbon energy network.

Xcel’s Smart Grid City page is here.