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TECHNOLOGY MEANS GIVE+TAKE

Published In: Intelligent Utility Magazine September/October 2009

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AT AGE 70, BLUEBONNET COULD CHOOSE TO SETTLE in as a stodgy, creaky electric cooperative intent on clinging to its heydays of the past. Not quite.

Indeed, the deft decision-makers at the Bastrop, Texas coop are arguably ahead of the utility pack in pursuit of their version of the smart grid. CEO Mark Rose elaborates on his unique vision for the progressive coop in a compact and eloquent document titled ''The Sustainable Grid.'' Defining characteristics cover everything from lowering the coop's carbon footprint to embracing the latest technology.

Perhaps the most unorthodox of Rose's ideas-and one that is generally antithetical to the traditional utility industry-is the insistence on inviting Bluebonnet's 65,000 members to the ''electricity table.'' The nimble coop is on the verge of granting access to real-time meter data via a Web portal so customers can use computers or smart phones to shape their energy load independently or in response to the utility's request.

The coop's latest member survey indicated an overwhelming majority of customers are receptive to participating in demand response events and allowing Bluebonnet to communicate directly with their thermostats.

''Here is our viewpoint,'' said Rose, who is also the coop's general manager. ''We're not going to survive in the central station mentality. Customer control is the future of our industry. As a distribution utility, we have only one thing to fear-not keeping up with the technology.''

If Bluebonnet receives the federal stimulus funding it is counting on, this Web 2.0 concept could be operating in the first half of 2010. Otherwise, execution will take somewhat longer. But the coop has already laid the groundwork by purchasing and installing the latest gadgetry for supervisory control and data acquisition, geographic information, automatic vehicle location, outage management and automatic meter reading.

Next on the list are advanced metering infrastructure, meter data management, home energy displays, smart thermostats and home automated networks. Managers are in the midst of selecting the most appropriate architecture.

Incorporating Web 2.0 two-way communications tools will help customers understand their electricity use and charges- instead of being left to decipher a mysterious, month-old bill or attempting to read their own meter.

''We're taking our utility customer into the 21st century,'' Rose said, adding that the digitally adept among them are already poised to storm the gates. ''As members become empowered with information, they will want more. Eventually, they will not settle for not having this information.''

''This is not a pilot project,'' he said. ''We want to go as far as we can as fast as we can. We have a lot of confidence in this technology. We've seen how it helps the bottom line.''

Merely providing customers with an infinite amount of meter information isn't enough, Rose explained. Narrowing the scope to what's relevant and allowing interaction on a real-time basis is the linchpin.

Giving members an anywhere-anytime, Internet-based ability to control how and when they use their appliances, respond to price signals or peak load emergency situations to save money and conserve energy, and sell their own distributed energy back to the utility, allows them to become meaningful players on the grid, Rose said.

''We realize this is a very forward-looking goal,'' Rose said. ''I'm very excited about it. We think it is the distribution grid of the future. We don't sell kilowatts, we sell the service of bringing electricity to your house.''

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