Power grid in Houston to get smart technology upgrade

Project to use broadband-over-power-line network for real-time data

A Houston-based electric and gas utility company is using new technology from IBM to make its power grid more efficient by enabling it to automatically report power outages, component failures and other information over a real-time, IP-based broadband-over-power-line (BPL) system.

CenterPoint Energy Houston Electric LLC, a subsidiary of CenterPoint Energy Inc., is deploying a pilot of an "intelligent grid" that will allow the power grid to transmit its status using strategically placed sensors and new "smart" electric meters planned for installation in all customer homes and businesses.

Don Cortez, vice president of distribution support for the company's electric operations, said the new technology will help the utility to virtually upgrade its power lines, substations and other electrical transmission equipment without needing a complete and hugely expensive physical replacement. The price tag for the five-year project is $300 million.

Businesses and consumers have much higher demands for electrical power, Cortez said, while the power system itself still largely uses wire and components from the 1950s.

"What we really need to do is add a layer of intelligence to that 1950s wire," Cortez said. "What we're putting together is the enabling platform to make this happen."

Under the pilot project, several hundred sensors will be placed in strategic locations throughout the power grid and connected to a pilot BPL system that the company completed last year. The sensors will be like eyes and ears that can deliver information on the condition of the system, including voltages and other feedback, via the BPL system directly to IBM-provided databases and analytical software. "Obviously, the more [sensors] I have, the more information I get back," he said.

The pilot intelligent grid program will be deployed in three areas in Houston this year, covering about 44,500 electrical customers and about 22,500 natural gas customers. The company has about 1.9 million electric customers and 1 million natural gas customers, Cortez said.

Over the next five years, the company plans to replace the 1.9 million electrical meters used with smart meters that are linked digitally to the utility to provide instant data, such as power loss and voltage information. The smart meters will also allow the utility to connect and disconnect customers from the power system without having to physically visit the home or business, streamlining hookups and shut-offs.

The new meters will also provide benefits for customers, Cortez said, such as the ability to monitor their electrical consumption in real time so they can change their usage habits and save money. With the new meters, customers won't have to call the utility in the event of a power outage as they must do today. Instead, the meters will report the problem to the utility instantly.

Using the pilot BPL system, the intelligent grid can send bidirectional information to the utility so the data can be evaluated and used to make operations more efficient, Cortez said. "It's like one giant LAN now," he said.

Raymond Blair, vice president of BPL initiatives at IBM's energy and utility industry division, said the intelligent grid technology will enable utilities to know much more about what's happening on their aging networks.

"Part of what we're doing is giving them that visibility," Blair said. Using the data capture from the sensors and smart meters in the system, CenterPoint will eventually be able to perform data analytics to use its network more efficiently. "There's going to be mountains of [data]," Blair said.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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