Xcel Energy announces intent to build US’s first smart grid city


By Roy Palmer

Because of the dense concentration of new technologies and integration throughout the city’s energy distribution system, it is expected to provide the best test to date of smart grid benefits. The vision for the Smart Grid City – when fully realised over the next few years – will enable a portfolio of smart grid technologies designed to provide financial, operational and environmental benefits. The plan is to enable two-way communications to the roughly 50,000 metered accounts (approximately 100,000 Boulder residents). The first phase of this transformation will replace between 10,000 and 15,000 meters by the fall of 2008.

The size of the customer pool should allow experimentation with different service delivery options and approaches. For example, meters may be deployed from several different vendors, which send information in various ways, or the capability of wireless or broadband over power line communications may be evaluated. Another option is to send different signals to the meters to study the influence on consumer demand and market behaviours.

Additionally, it is intended to install new equipment upstream of consumers on Xcel Energy’s energy delivery system – including substations – that will boost overall grid intelligence and reliability, optimising the entire grid and ensuring peak performance. The Smart Grid City is viewed as the first step toward building the grid of the future. In Boulder, Xcel Energy will collaborate with others to integrate all aspects of its smart grid vision and evaluate the benefits. The work will serve as a launching pad that will benefit not only Boulder, but also customers throughout the company’s eight-state service territory. Lessons learned here can be shared with an energy industry that is struggling with how to effectively move an ageing energy grid into the 21st century.

In December 2007, Xcel Energy established the Smart Grid Consortium, bringing together leading engineering, business, and information technology firms as well as numerous other experts. Partners in the consortium include consulting company Accenture Ltd, based in Bermuda, the privately held Current Group LLC, a monitoring and controls technology company based in Germantown, Maryland, Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories, Inc., based in Pullman, Washington, and software firm Ventyx, Inc., based in Atlanta, Georgia.

Smart Xcel1

The smart house. Key components include a smart meter, smart appliances, smart thermostat, plug-in hybrid electric car, high speed communication connection, and customer choice of energy sources

Additional partners may be added in the future, as the project’s scope becomes clearly defined. The group will provide guidance, and the products and services needed to implement the ambitious smart grid vision. Funding is anticipated for only a portion of the project, and it is planned to leverage other sources, including government grants, for the remainder of what could be up to a $100 million effort.

In addition to its ideal size, geographic location and access to all grid components, Boulder was selected as the Smart Grid City because it is home to the University of Colorado and several federal government institutions, including the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which is already involved in smart grid efforts for the federal government.

This creates opportunities to partner with world-class leaders as smart grid standards are developed. In the long run, it is expected that this will help as the smart grid is taken to other cities.

Boulder was selected for this groundbreaking effort for several other reasons as well. It offers the right mix of residential and business customers and is home to customers with a propensity for new technology and who tend to be ‘early adopters’. And from an engineering standpoint, Boulder is not geographically contiguous with the rest of the grid, which makes it the perfect place for testing smart grid technology. It is surrounded by a belt of open space – much like an island – and has the right number of substations and feeders for consortium designers to work with.

In 2006, Boulder voters agreed to tax themselves $1 million a year for a climate action plan designed to reshape the entire city’s energy use. City leaders seek to cut their overall greenhouse gas emissions by 22 percent from 2006 levels, while the state of Colorado has a mandated goal to get 20 percent of its energy supplies from non-polluting sources by 2020. As products and programmes are developed in Boulder, Xcel Energy will look to simultaneously implement the best technology in other jurisdictions. A smart grid will be a way of doing business for the company well into the future.


  • Accenture will provide guidance for best business/ consumer outreach practices and overall IT integration consulting.
  • Current Group will provide the communications network (i.e. broadband over powerlines) to connect all the smart grid components and allow them to “talk” to each other.
  • Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories will provide substation technology and infrastructure (monitors, relays, and sensors for smart substations).
  • Ventyx will provide work management solutions for deploying the smart grid technologies by identifying the right tools for sending the right crews to the right place when needed, planning and analytics for price and load forecasts, and decision-making support for connecting customer actions to trading and investment decisions in real time.

A Smart Grid Consortium website was unveiled along with the Boulder announcement at www.xcelenergy.com/smartgrid, with graphics and educational materials explaining the smart grid vision.

Smart Grid City could feature a number of infrastructure upgrades and customer offerings for the first time fully integrated through the partnership’s efforts in Boulder. These may include:

  • The transformation of existing metering infrastructure to a dynamic electric system communications network, providing real time, high speed, two way communication throughout the distribution grid
  • The conversion of substations to smart substations capable of remote monitoring, near real time data and optimised performance
  • At the customer’s invitation, installation of programmable in-home control devices and the necessary systems to fully automate home energy use
  • Integration of infrastructure to support easily dispatched distributed generation technologies, such as plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) with vehicle-to-grid technology, battery systems, wind turbines, and solar panels.

One of the first things Smart Grid City consumers can expect to see is the installation of advanced meters for a large portion of the city’s homes during the next year. Additional homes may be retrofitted at a later date.

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Smart grid city. Key components include a dynamic system rich in information technology, high speed real time two-way communications, sensors throughout the grid, decision making data and support, distributed generation technologies, automated “smart” substations, in-home energy control devices and automated home energy use

The meters will provide a gateway allowing homeowners to remotely control or pre-set their furnaces, lights, air conditioners and other devices. Appliances, equipment and load of all types will be operated to maximise efficiency and minimise environmental impacts. The meters also could give Xcel Energy the ability to dynamically price electricity, giving consumers the opportunity to choose how much energy they use based on their personal preferences, such as pricing, green power availability or low emission power sources.

Continuous feedback from smart meters and substation sensors should further increase power reliability by enabling rapid and precise response to grid problems. The system has the potential to pinpoint lines or substations at risk of overloading and activate remotely operated substation switches to reroute power. If problems persist, the system would send a signal to the smart meters of customers on the troubled lines; these customers may be offered some type of financial incentive to reduce demand when necessary.

With the city now selected, Xcel Energy and its Smart Grid Consortium partners are studying the city’s electricity infrastructure to develop a scope and preliminary design plan for implementing the changes. Work will start soon after, but system changes will take place over the next few years. The first phase of Smart Grid City is expected to be in place as early as August 2008, with expansion throughout the city continuing through 2009. Beginning in 2009, the consortium also expects to begin an initial assessment of the technologies. After initial implementation and assessment, the results will be used to talk with state, federal and regulatory officials about a larger deployment throughout Xcel Energy’s service territory.

Ultimately, Smart Grid City positions Xcel Energy to make better use of the available technology, and will help the company ensure:

  • Ongoing grid reliability and stability More effective use of natural resources and utility assets
  • A lowered carbon footprint (fewer plant emissions; lessened need for building new plants; lowered reliance on peaking plants)
  • More customer options for conservation, energy efficiency and energy management
  • Heightened ability to bring more renewable sources of energy online (PV panels, wind, vehicle-to-grid PHEVs, battery-stored power).

Xcel Energy understands that customer demands and expectations are rising exponentially, and this effort is key to meeting these needs in the future. Smart Grid City could unleash rapid investment in smart grid technologies and kick start full-scale, nationwide deployment in the near future. It is a true test of how much more reliable, cleaner and cheaper the energy grid operation can be when each piece of the grid is connected, wired for communication and tied together.