A City Gone Smart Boulder, Colorado Is the First to Employ the Smart Grid Citywide

Early returns are in from the smart grid test city of Boulder, Colorado: Impressive savings, increased reliability and excitement for what comes next.

“My electrical bills have gone down to zero,” says Dennis Arfmann, 59, an environmental lawyer whose 3,700-square-foot home was in the first wave of test sites. “Xcel [Energy, the electric utility leading the test] pays me,” he says, because his home generates more electricity than it uses.

About six months before plugging into the smart grid, Arfmann and his wife installed a five-kilowatt solar array, not quite enough to meet their home’s needs. But by using information from their smart meter and web-based monitor, they’ve gone from using 8,500 kilowatt-hours annually to under 4,000. “That’s all efficiency and reduction,” he says.

Apart from the savings, he adds, day-to-day life changes have been small. “We get outdoors to hang our laundry a couple of times a week,” Arfmann says, “and there’s that competitiveness thing, trying to outwit how much electricity you’re using. I’m still looking for a couple of tweaks this year—that part of it is sort of fun.”

Expensive, but Worth It

Jonathan Koehn, Boulder’s regional sustainability coordinator, says Arfmann’s attitude is typical in the city of about 100,000, which has more than five megawatts of what’s known as distributed generation—power that wasn’t produced by a utility. “I think there is a strong appetite in the community to really understand what the smart grid is and how best to use it,” Koehn says. “There’s a growing momentum and a growing excitement. We’re now entering the phase where we can actually play with what’s been created.”

That creation, said Xcel spokesperson Tom Henley, is a network of fiber-optic cables laid underground that allows information about conditions on the electrical grid to flow multidirectionally. One result is more reliable service, Henley says. “When a call does come in, we can see where it is, which transformer, what’s in the area. If it doesn’t have alley access, we have to send someone to climb the pole. Or if it does, we can send a cherry picker. So it reduces the amount of time a customer has to spend out of power.”

One glitch was that the cost of installing the cables more than doubled Xcel’s share of the project to $42 million. The total cost is more than $100 million, borne not only by Xcel but also a consortium of manufacturers that wanted to participate in the test.

“When they call it Boulder, there’s a reason,” Henley says. “We had to do some blasting, some diamond-bit drilling. It was a lot more expensive than we thought. That being said, the infrastructure is all in.”

Xcel’s rate request for the next phase of the test is pending with Colorado’s utility commission. There are three options, one of which would let customers get rebates by reducing their electrical use during peak periods, such as hot summer afternoons. Once the rate plan is set, Henley says, the company will begin broader installation of home energy management devices.

“We would really like to have them in before the summer,” he adds. “That’s when we”ll learn what customers really will do. Will they take steps to save, or will they live with it and tolerate it instead?”