Posted: October 8th 2013

A smarter grid

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A smart grid can help reduce customers' energy use and improve the efficiency and reliability of the electricity grid.

A smart grid can help reduce customers’ energy use and improve the efficiency and reliability of the electricity grid.


Cheri Warren, Vice-President , Asset Management explains why a smarter grid will change lives for the better.

Today, most utilities don’t know when your power goes out until you call them. Today, you get a bill for electric service, but no breakdown for the actual usage. Do you know how much it costs to run a light for an hour? An air conditioner for an hour? No way to tell right now.

Enter smart grid.

A smarter grid will change people’s lives for the better. A smarter grid will give customers choices that will allow them to make decisions and save energy, save money and safeguard the environment.

We don’t have that today. Our current electric system looks very much like the system that Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla started in the late 1800s. In upstate New York, we’re still using a service line that Edison built.

Smart grids include in-home energy management systems, giving consumers more choice and control over how and when electricity is used.

Smart grids include in-home energy management systems, giving consumers more choice and control over how and when electricity is used.

We’re standing at the beginning of a journey. A transition to a smart grid that is only possible if the electric utility industry and customers are willing to take it together, along with regulators, legislators, vendors, and others. A shared vision is best brought to light when everybody participates collaboratively, through a shared partnership.

We’re pretty lucky to have an energy progressive government in Massachusetts, interested in changing the grid and enabling customers where they live, work, and play. Back in 2008, the state issued the Green Communities Act. This act called for utilities to submit smart grid pilots to do three things: one, help customers save at least 5% of their energy on average every day and on the hottest days of the year; two, test new technology both on the grid and in customer homes, including advanced metering infrastructure; and three, offer the actual price of electricity to customers through time of use rates.

Pilot proposal

We developed a pilot proposal, but it was short-sighted. We didn’t ask our customers for any input. Within two years, we pulled it.

Two years ago we decided to try it again, this time with our customers. We dreamt up a pilot that would offer customers choices about their energy, and allow them to be partners in what we saw as a sustainable revolution.

For this second round, we used a technique called Appreciative Inquiry (AI). Appreciate represents a collection of strengths and cost efficiency. Inquiry is about the business question. AI allows change at the scale of the whole – not top down, not bottom up – but with a mixed group. We partnered with the City of Worcester and invited people from all stakeholder groups, from low and high income customers, to regulators, to utility personnel, to student and university administrators, to vendors and more. Our goal: Green Today, Growth Tomorrow: Transforming Worcester into an innovative energy leader of a smarter commonwealth.

We convened 300 people for two days and Dr. David Cooperrider, the founder of AI, facilitated our session. Through discussion, debate and a slew of creative activities, nine great ideas were born.

The energy revolution

Three of them pertained specifically to our efforts. One, people really want to interact with energy and become part of the energy revolution, to have choice and control. However, they need some guidance. Two, people liked the idea of a sustainability hub to help them on the Green today, growth tomorrow journey. They felt having a hub would educate them not only on smart grid technology, but could potentially bring new, green jobs. Three, in order for the pilot and the sustainability hub to be successful, we needed to “listen, test and learn.” This National Grid mantra became part of the hub design.

Our $43.6 million smart grid pilot programme will be conducted in the city of Worcester, MA.

Our $43.6 million smart grid pilot programme will be conducted in the city of Worcester, MA.

So, we got to work. Together with Clark University, we are building a sustainability hub which will open next month in a low income neighborhood in Worcester – it’s accessible by bus and has plenty of parking. Think of it as an Apple store, but for energy rather than computers. People can come to feel and touch energy equipment, learn about choices, and create a better sense of community.

We designed a new smart grid pilot, made it as inclusive as possible and set out to create a statistically valid group of all customers. Next, 15,000 Worcester residents will participate in the pilot, scheduled to launch in January 2014.

What will the smartgrid pilot look like?

All 15,000 participants will receive a smart meter, educational material, the ability to access their energy use on the web and time-of-use pricing options that better reflect real-time actual energy costs.

This information will enable action, much the way information from the newest cars on the road can spark action. My car reports my miles per gallon (mpg) in real time. Subsequently, I drive in a way that will improve my mpg.

One select group of these customers will also receive a home display unit masquerading as an internet based picture frame. Customers can upload any photos they’d like, and energy usage information and critical peak pricing information will scroll in between them. This data will help them decide how best to use energy.

Another select group will receive a smart thermostat that uses the cloud to do two thing: allow customers to program it through a web-based window (much easier than pushing buttons on the device), and, with advanced analytics, use actual and desired temperature and humidity to help customers save energy.

Finally, a third group will get the home display unit, the smart thermostat, and a load control device to plug in one device they’d really like to monitor use on, maybe an x-box, microwave, or window air conditioner.

So, what about the grid side? We get excited about grid technology, but our focus is on the importance of giving our customers choice in how they generate energy, use their energy, and in some cases save money while making their power more reliable. For us, it’s about transforming the very heart of our business. No longer is it good enough to have one-way power flow with no real-time communications. People want a choice about their energy use and allowing them to connect distributed generation to the grid, whenever and wherever they want, without restriction, is the answer. Smart grid will make it possible to offer this choice.

A significant shift

As part of the pilot, we plan to install advanced distribution automation – smart, fast switches that will keep customers from experiencing outages. We also plan to install smart capacitors to reduce losses and in the process increase energy savings. With advanced fault location, we’ll be able to send our workforce to an exact trouble location instead of having them drive around looking for the problem as they do today. This is a significant and exciting shift for us.

The future looks brighter with smart grid on the horizon. People are taking action through choice from the appliances they buy to the time of day they do laundry, and they’re seeing a decrease in their energy bills. Adults and children alike are helping to save the environment. The Worcester smart grid pilot will pave the way to this future that enables choice and action.


  1. David O'Brien


    Very well said. I hope your posts are shared broadly so that customers and reglutors can come to appreciate the promise of an advanced grid. You very well show that this is not about technology for technology sake but instead very much a fulfillment of customer and society’s needs.

    As you suggest we can transform the grid to comport with modern expecations and capabilities provided we do it together. The Worcester Summit is an excellent way to start that journey.

  2. Donna Grafton

    Will you please provide me with rebate form for Programable Thermostat purchased.

    Thank you,
    Donna Grafton

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