An Oregon electric utility is building three smart grids – and it wants customers to help out

Here at the Smart Cities Council we've consistently (and strongly) recommended that cities partner with their electric companies on smart city projects, and we've been working with Council Global Lead Partner Edison Electric Institute to facilitate those partnerships.

A very good (and very large) example of city-utility partnership is Portland General Electric's proposal to build smart grids in the city of Portland and two other communities in the metro area. The cities' governments are very much on board. They recognize the tremendous value smart energy networks provide for their cities. But the utility is also hoping for a very high percentage of citizen participation in the projects as well. More about that in the story below. — Doug Peeples


PGE's Smart Grid Test Bed will, the utility says, "integrate smart grid technology on a scale never before attempted in the United States." That may sound like hyperbole, but it involves building a smart grid and providing related services in each of three cities, with anticipated participation from 20,000 customers.

PGE is the state's largest electric company and is no stranger to smart grid and smart grid-related projects, such as Salem, Oregon's Salem Smart Power Center, a collaboration between the utility and Council Associate Partner Eaton and others.

The test bed project, scheduled to begin next year, will allow the participating customers to use demand response signals and receive incentives for installing smart home technologies, which will give them more control over their electricity use and allow them to use power more efficiently and save money on electric bills.

The goal is to integrate more renewable energy into PGE's power supply while maintaining a safe, secure, reliable electric grid. "Together with customers we're making the future a reality with innovative projects like our Smart Grid Test Bed. The first-of-a-kind project will leapfrog over other smart grid efforts, enabling PGE to gain and share learnings that will aid the entire industry," said PGE president and CEO Maria Pope.

Former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Jon Wellinghoff, now CEO of Grid Policy, Inc., had supportive and encouraging things to say about the project. "By providing customers with more control  over their energy consumption and carbon footprint with the latest in control technology, PGE is on a path to building a model that energy providers everywhere can learn from and replicate."
How it will work
The utility will help customers automate smart home equipment such as water heaters, thermostats and EV chargers to work in conjunction with how it operates the electric grid. The demand response feature will enable customers to decide if they want to reduce their energy use during periods of peak demand. To do it the utility will need to install advanced communications and distribution network upgrades in the participating cities of Portland, Milwaukie and Hillsboro. Three feeders and substations also will be equipped with new remote controls and other smart grid technology to ensure the grid's reliability, safety and cybersecurity.

The project also is intended to accelerate the growth of distributed energy resources, including customer rooftop solar, EV charging, smart appliances and others.

Oregon regulators developed the project concept and are overseeing it, with additional guidance from an advisory committee of public and private sector professionals.

PGE is aiming high with its participation expectations for the two-and-a-half-year project. It wants 66% participation from eligible customers, substantially more than the usual 7% participation rate in demand response programs.

Mark Gamba, mayor of Milwaukie, is eager for the project to get underway. "Milwaukie looks forward to exploring how this technology not only moves us toward our goal of being a net zero city by 2040, but creates resiliency in the face of more and more violent storms."
Doug Peeples is a Portland, Oregon-based writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.