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Funds will help Owen Electric get ‘smart’

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By John Whitlock

The Owen Electric Cooperative is getting “smart.”

The cooperative is receiving over $1.5 million in matching funds through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act from the U.S. Department of Energy.

With help from the cooperative research network and 19 other cooperatives, the funds will be used to evaluate the benefits of “smart” technologies for consumer members.

Owen Electric has budgeted more than $3 million for the program which will focus on five major projects including a communication network upgrade; supervisory control and data acquisition upgrade; a self-healing grid demonstration; and a “smart home” pilot project.

With the network upgrades and data acquisition projects, Owen Electric will be able to improve service by reducing outage time and providing real-time energy usage information to members.

Armed with this new information, Owen Electric hopes members will have a better idea of their energy consumption and when they might want to conserve.

According to co-op spokesperson Whitney Duvall, the communications upgrade will take information gathered from power lines and substations and will relay it to the control systems at Owen Electric’s headquarters in Owenton. Computers will use this information to make automated decisions to “optimize the efficiency and reliability of the electrical distribution grid,” Duvall said in a statement.

The communication upgrade is scheduled for completion by June 2011.

The SCADA system, which is already being implemented, collects energy-usage data, equipment statuses, and outage data from Owen Electric’s  25 substations across nine northern Kentucky counties.

The SCADA upgrade will include replacing a master station and improving the reliability and data collection capabilities from the Owen Electric’s substations.

The two self-healing grid demonstration projects will improve reliability at two of Owen Electric’s large industrial customers.

Using outage detectors, automated switches, and decision-making logic software, the co-op will be able to more quickly handle and correct an energy supply problem for these customers.

The fundings will also be used in part for Owen Electric’s Integrated Volt Var Control project, which will help direct more electricity to a grid when there is a surge in usage.

One of the most ambitious projects Owen Electric will undertake with the funding, Duvall said,  will be the smart home project.

Owen Electric plans on starting the smart home project early in 2012.

For the project, 100 homes will be chosen from Owen Electric’s members across northern Kentucky. Because the program is in its infancy, it has not been determined how the homes will be selected.

Under the smart home project, each house will be equipped with an in-home energy use display and PC software; a “smart” thermostat to improve heating and cooling efficiencies; a load-management switch on the water heater; and smart appliances that adjust their usage pattern based upon an energy time of use rate structure, Duvall said.

Mark Stallons, Owen Electric CEO, had an In-home display installed in his home for the last year for testing purposes.

“What I enjoyed most is the feature that tells me what my bill will be for the month. The display has the energy rates programmed into its software and based upon my actual usage, it forecasts what my bill will be,” Stallons said. “If it is more money than I am willing to pay, I can choose to change my thermostat or I can take any other action to reduce energy use. I can also choose to do nothing and pay the bill. The key is that I am in charge of my energy usage and know what the cost will be.”

Duvall said since not-for-profit cooperatives are owned by its consumer-members, the new technologies will be evaluated using a simple test: do they help the cooperative in its mission to provide safe, reliable and affordable power to its members?

Although the matching funds Owen Electric will receive comes from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act or “stimulus package” approved by the federal government in 2008, Duvall said Owen Electric will not be hiring new people for the projects.

“In regard to jobs, no new jobs will be created in conjunction with the pilot programs and research,” Duvall said. “This is not to say that eventually, should Owen Electric go system-wide with ‘smart home’ technology, minimal local jobs may be created.”