Boulder’s SmartGridCity Two Years On

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4min 18sec

With Colorado Public Radio, I’m Mike Lamp. Two years ago this month Xcel flipped the switch on Boulder’s Smart Grid City. The project was sold as a way of giving customers greater control of their energy usage and limiting blackouts. Eventually it would help facilitate a green energy future. But some are now calling the project a failure. And as Colorado Public Radio’s Ben Markus reports it may ultimately lead the City of Boulder to end its long relationship with Xcel.

Reporter Ben Markus: On a recent rainy day, Steve Pomerance walks around to the side yard of his Boulder home to take a look at his Smart Meter. Pomerance says it’s far from smart...but he stops short of calling it dumb.

Pomerance: Well it’s not dumb, there are meters that you have to come and look at and read the numbers. It’s not that dumb, but it does not do what’s required for a smart grid.

Reporter: Pomerance can’t get real-time information about his usage from it -- so he can’t tailor his behaviors to save energy. But that was just what Xcel promised it would help customers do when it launched Smart Grid to much fanfare two years ago. It was even featured in a news report on Good Morning America.

ABC Clip: The town of Boulder, Colorado is launching a bold new program that could change the way we live entirely. ABC’s Lisa Fletcher takes us to the world’s first SmartGridCity..

Pomerance: It was sold as being this great thing that would promote energy efficiency and conservation and allow Boulder to do all these far out things. As it turned out it doesn’t allow Boulder to do hardly anything.

Reporter: That last part may be overstating it. Xcel installed communications equipment across the city’s grid. And that’s allowed them to reduce power outages, save fuel, and improve power quality. But Adam Reed, a researcher with CU Boulder, agrees that the utility ignored the consumer side of the project.

Adam Reed: So when people talk about being let down by the SmartGridCity experiment, they’re quite accurate. Xcel told people they were going to be getting all of this nifty equipment to manage their electricity consumption. And they didn’t end up installing it, I think, largely, because it doesn’t really save Xcel all that much money.

Reporter: He says there’s little research to show that customers would actually cut back on usage if they had real-time information. The other chief compliant about SmartGridCity is cost. Xcel spent triple the budgeted amount to build it. And the company got permission from the Public Utilities Commission to recover that cost through the monthly utility bills of customers across the state.

Ron Binz: We did not find that the investment was imprudent.

Reporter: Ron Binz is the former chairman of the Colorado PUC. He says SmartGridCity did improve grid reliability so the Commission gave the utility most of the money it asked for. To get the rest, Xcel has to come up with a plan to deal with the consumer complaints.

Binz: But you’re going to have to show us that you’ve actually got a strategic plan going forward.

Reporter: At Xcel’s downtown Denver headquarters Director of Marketing Jonathan Addleman says the company will present that plan before the end of the year. He says those things Boulder customers want -- like real-time information about usage and innovative pricing plans are on the way. And he thinks the project will eventually be worth the money.

Jonathan Addleman: When you look at spending $45 million on a project, you know, for the benefit of 1.4 million electric customers in Colorado I think that will prove out that that was a good investment to make.

Reporter: Meaning what’s learned in Boulder will eventually benefit the rest of Xcel’s customers. Addleman admits that marketing may have unintentionally gotten ahead of reality.

Addleman: I think, though, that this label of Smart Grid I think really people started to expect some sort of, ‘the world will be different in the future.’ And I think that’s been one of the challenges that we and other utilities have faced, is really setting fair expectations to customers what this does mean.

Reporter: Despite that, there’s a perception amongst some in Boulder that Xcel has failed. And guys like Steve Pomerance, who used to be a city councilman, are using that to drum up support for dropping Xcel to create a municipal utility instead. They say the city can do a better job getting green energy and deploying things like smart grid. Pomerance adds that the ironic thing is SmartGridCity was partly created to entice the city not to go that route.

Pomerance: To keep Boulder from trying to create its own municipal utility. Which the thing worst than failed at, it created a motivation for.

Reporter: Now the question lies with Boulder voters, who will decide whether or not to cut ties with the utility in November.