Naperville looks to future with Smart Grid Initiative

Naperville Employees work on transformer
photo courtesy of Dennis Moore
Two Naperville employees work on a transformer. Naperville’s Smart Grid Initiative project will provide jobs for union electrical workers as well as train them in smart grid technology.

By Jennifer Rice
Staff Writer

Looking ahead to the future, the City of Naperville is using the Smart Grid Initiative as a way to save energy, reduce cost and increase the reliability of electrical service to its customers. At the same time, it is opening the door to new job opportunities for local electrical workers.
For the past 120 years, Naperville has run its own municipal electrical system, one of the few in the country, putting more than 90 percent of its power lines underground. This creates an impressive underground infrastructure, valued at $356 million.
By not having a private company provide electricity, like Commonwealth Edison, the city is in control of the decision-making of delivering electricity to its customers. By having most of the infrastructure underground, reliability is higher, as there is less line damage by wind, hail or ice.
The next step the city is taking will thrust Naperville into the future and beyond.
With the help of an $11 million matching grant from the Smart Grid Investment Grant Program by the U.S. Department of Energy, Naperville will begin implementing its Smart Grid Initiative plan by improving the overall infrastructure of its grid and installing smart meters for customers.
“This is a huge opportunity for labor to see job potential where equipment will be installed and maintained,” said Naperville councilman Bob Fieseler, a member of the steering committee for the Smart Grid Initiative.
“There is going to be new technology and it’s really exciting because the members in the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) are being trained as the new technology emerges. What they are learning is not going to be obsolete, but very valuable knowledge to pass along as greener technology catches on,” Fieseler added.
Work on improving the smart grid has already started. Installing the smart meters will come later. The project is scheduled for completion in three years. When completed, customers who want to will be able to see a breakdown of where their electricity is being used the most, such as from their air conditioner, dishwasher or washing machine, via their smart meter.
Fieseler said historically, peak electrical usage hours are from 4 to 9 p.m. As a result, during this time, the rate for electricity is also high, resulting in a peak rate for customers. Ideally, a consumer would like to use electricity during non-peak hours when it is less expensive.
With data from a smart meter, customers can do that and learn when to access “electricity on sale,” Fieseler said.
“The smart meters are what is going to affect the customer more than anything. With them, they have the ability to know how they are using power and can make decisions about whether they should change their habits,” he said.
With smart meters, Naperville will be able to offer customers peak and non-peak rates. Currently, the offers a blended rate, as it cannot differentiate if customers are using electricity during peak or non-peak hours.
At the residential level, running electricity during non-peak hours may not seem like it could give a customer a lot of savings, but at the business level, it could potentially save a businesses hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of years if they decided to run factory machinery during non-peak hours. It is expected that businesses would run on the smart grid first, followed by residential owners.
Other savings will come in the form of “green” savings, by cutting down on emissions into the air. Starting in 2012, Naperville will have a contract with the Illinois Municipal Electric Agency (IMEA) to buy electricity for 30 years. At that time, the IMEA will have a new power plant up and running, which is located next to a coal mine.
“What will happen [is] the coal goes right next door to the power plant to make the electricity and then it’s sent up north to the communities that have invested in this,” Fieseler said.
Because of the close proximity of the coal mine, coal won’t be delivered on trains, reducing the extra expense of cartage. Also, there is a reduction in the carbon footprint from the locomotives carrying the coal.
Looking ahead to the future, Fieseler said there is a trend in popularity with hybrid and electric vehicles, which run on electricity. These car owners will benefit from charging their car during non-peak hours.
“Now some people will roll their eyes and say, ‘I’ll never own a plug-in or electric car,’ but they are coming. The first electric car is going to be sold in 2011, maybe even earlier,” he said.
“We have to look to the next generation. We’re not doing this for the Baby Boomers. We’re doing it for the Generation X and Generation Y. The two biggest users of electricity that can be controlled better are the air conditioner and the electric car,” he added.
And in looking ahead to our future generation of workers, the IBEW also is planning; making sure union members are trained in the latest smart grid technology and for the deployment of electrical equipment.
Bill Habel, Business Representative and Instructor for IBEW Local 701, said his and other union members train for trends in the market.
“This is the future, especially wind and solar for the generation of power,” Habel said. “The IBEW recognizes trends in the market and we prepare for that. The more knowledgeable we are, the better prepared we’re going to be. We’re faced with 30 percent unemployment right now. We can use work in any facet of the industry,” he added.
Under the Department of Energy grant, Naperville is obligated to share what it has learned by implementing its Smart Grid Initiative with other municipal electrical systems, such as thos in Batavia, Geneva and St. Charles.
“In essence, we’re a test case,” Fieseler said. “We’re going to learn things and have the knowledge we learned transferred to other places.”
When the Smart Grid Initiative is complete, new and existing homes will require a home area network. It can be a wireless network in a new home, or run through copper wires in an older, existing home. Appliances will have a Universal Serial Bus (USB) port, which enables it to communicate either with a hardwired or a wireless device, which will then go to the smart meter so it can collect and interpret data.
“Union members are also going to get involved at this point, from the smart meter to the appliances,” Fieseler said. “Once you get the electricity to the smart meters outside of the customer location, then you have to get it interacting with devices on the inside.”
Habel said transmitting data onto copper wires is nothing new. “All you need is a module to intercept the frequency and intercept the data. You need someone to install the device to extract the data,” he added.
With the home area network, customers will be able to access their home network via a computer or wireless device, and communicate with their smart meter.
“You can actually sign on to your network and send a command to turn on your air conditioner, say an hour before you leave work. That way, your air conditioner is not on all day, only when you want it to be,” Fieseler said.
Habel said the Smart Grid Initiative is good for the community. “It’s an opportunity to start analyzing how we use our electricity so we can better know what to do on the generating side of electricity,” he added.

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