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Last month, the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities (DPU) green-lighted National Grid's proposed smart grid pilot in Worcester, Mass. The two-year project, estimated to cost around $44 million, aims to install Itron smart meters for approximately 15,000 of the utility's customers in the region. In addition, the pilot will explore electric vehicle charging, dynamic pricing and renewable energy integration, among other initiatives.

It's been three years since National Grid submitted its initial request for the pilot, pursuant to the state's Green Communities Act of 2008. The legislation required all Massachusetts utilities to generate smart grid pilot proposals and to incorporate at least 0.25% of their customers in their pilots. Cheri Warren, vice president of asset management, notes that National Grid went beyond the minimum mandate, including 1.2% of its nearly 1.3 million total electricity users in the state.

"We wanted to get a group of customers that was extremely representative of the rest of the commonwealth,” she tells Renew Grid. “We felt that with whatever we learned here, both on the grid and on the customer side, we could then make better decisions about what could and should be ruled out elsewhere in the state."

The customer is always right

Gaining knowledge from the pilot - and insight from its customers - is a top priority for National Grid. In September 2011, the utility teamed with Worcester city officials to host a Green to Growth Summit. The event drew more than 300 attendees, and Warren says the feedback gathered there helped shape the project.

For example, the utility plans to integrate customers’ energy usage and peak pricing information on an in-home display that is similar to a digital picture frame.

“Basically, what we heard was not to make this a special thing all by itself, but to try and make it something people would actually use,” Warren adds. (A vendor for the display has yet to be announced.)

However, not all comments from the community have been positive. The utility has also had to address health and privacy concerns regarding smart meters and other advanced metering infrastructure. To ease such worries, National Grid showcased the technologies at the 2011 summit and tried to separate fact from fiction.

A common claim against smart meters is that radio frequency (RF) from the equipment’s wireless communications system can cause cancer. Therefore, National Grid brought in RF meters to show attendees how little RF the smart grid equipment actually generates.

Regarding privacy, National Grid has maintained that any information the utility gathers is secure.

“We’re governed fairly strictly by the Massachusetts DPU, and we follow those rules very carefully and ensure our customers’ privacy,” explains Warren. “In terms of data, that data is all the customers’, and they can make choices about what they want to do with that data. We don't do anything with it that they don’t say can be done. We don’t give it away.”

Following its summit, the utility has continued its community-outreach efforts through social media sites, including Facebook and Twitter, and also plans to build a “Sustainability Hub” where customers can learn more about the pilot and its technologies.

As for Worcester customers who remain unconvinced about the pilot’s benefits or have unwavering concerns, there is an opt-out option; however, it may cost them extra.

“If they don’t want those meters, we make arrangements for alternatives with an appropriate price tag,” says Warren, adding that managing older technology requires the utility to use more manpower and other resources - in other words, it’s more expensive.

The cost of the pilot, itself, will be added into the tariffs all National Grid customers in Massachusetts pay. The state’s DPU approved a mechanism allowing the utility to file for incremental cost recovery the year after the costs are incurred. The utility says it expects to begin billing participants in September 2013. The following chart depicts the planned increase by year:

Hiccups and progress

In May, National Grid began installing approximately 5,000 of the 15,000 smart meters, and the utility is nearly finished with this initial field trial.

According to Warren, the field trial has revealed a few hiccups related to how devices communicate with other equipment. Some issues required changes in configuration settings, while others called for slight updates to the products themselves.

“We’ve got some baseline data, and we’re starting to learn a lot so that when we put the other 10,000 [smart meters] in, there won’t be any glitches in terms of the communications technologies,” Warren says.

The full pilot launch is expected within the next year, and National Grid anticipates long-term upside.

“In terms of benefits, over time, customers are going to have so much more choice about when they use energy and where their energy comes from,” says Warren. “On the grid side, we’re also going to get a lot more information.”

National Grid provides electricity to about 3.3 million customers in Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire and Rhode Island. As to whether the utility will expand its smart grid efforts across its entire service area, Warren cautiously says, “It depends on what we learn.”

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