AUSTIN (KXAN) — As power generators, utility providers and state leaders evaluate ways to bolster the Texas power grid against future winter storms, some energy experts are turning their focus to smart technology.
In the last year, much of the attention has been on safeguarding the power supply — by winterizing power generators to withstand unusually lengthy periods of freezing temperatures. Some experts say focusing on managing the demand for power in extreme circumstances could also strengthen the grid and even prevent lengthy outages.
Dr. Joshua Rhodes, a research associate at The University of Texas at Austin explained utility providers could someday have the ability to control outages extremely precisely — even home-by-home — using Advanced Metering Infrastructure, or AMI.
AMI is an integrated system of smart electric meters, communications networks and data management systems that enables two-way communication between utilities and their customers. The smart meters have been installed across most of the state.
“I really think if the power had only been out for an hour or two at a time per home, maybe every other day, then people would have seen it more as a nuisance than a catastrophe,” he said of the storms in February 2021 that knocked out power to millions in Texas.
The theory is: this technology could allow providers to protect vulnerable customers or roll outages more equitably among all customers during a power crisis.
“Turn this home off, leave this home on,” he said. “But the internet cable’s not big enough to carry all the millions of commands that it would have taken. We can turn off and on a few thousand per day, but it would have taken millions to be able to, you know, effectively roll and keep people down to an hour or two without power.”
He said the lack of back-end infrastructure to use this technology on a large scale makes it impractical for handling a crisis as severe as the February 2021 storm.
“It’s like trying to download a movie on like a dial up connection, right?” he explained. “You got all this ability to, like, stream movies on the Internet. But if you only have a dial up connection, you’re not going to be any — you’re not gonna see it very fast.”
In 2005, the Texas Legislature directed the Public Utility Commission to authorized electric delivery companies and providers to add a surcharge to customers’ bills to recover the costs of the smart meters.
“So, that was kind of promised whenever Texans paid for the seven or eight million smart meters that we’ve rolled out across the state, and it’s not really a real reality that we’ve — that we’ve seen,” Rhodes said.
Dr. Rhodes told KXAN he believes with more time and funding dedicated to building out the infrastructure at the state level, this technology could help.
“It has been proposed by a few different folks, but it doesn’t seem to have made its way to the top of the list,” he said. “It might be more expensive than the route they’re currently taking right now, which is something that can probably be done faster.”
In an after-action report from the storm, released in the fall of 2021, Austin Energy said it had “explored but not yet implemented” AMI technology as a means of shutting off power or rotating outages when the state mandates providers shed load. The report stated that more testing and technological advancements would be needed.
“It’s something that might have potential in the future,” said Thomas Pierpoint, vice president of engineering at Austin Energy. “But there’s a lot of details to work out. We’re talking 500,000 meters, and we’ve got to make sure if we turn them off, we can turn them back on again. So, there’s a lot of testing a lot of engineering work. We want to make sure if we do that, that we get it right.”
The after-action report also explains using the technology for anything more than service to small quantities of power disconnections is not “standard utility industry practice.” Plus, it pointed out these kinds of meters can currently only be installed on average-sized, residential homes and is “not suitable for businesses or larger homes.”
The report lists several more reasons the technology was not used during the winter storm, including a concern than any significant issue resulting from its use could “trigger” the need for crews to make a physical visit to the meters — which would not have been feasible at the time.
Smart grid technology
Just 100 miles away, Dr. Le Xie studies energy digitization at Texas A&M University. He believes smart appliances could also be used as a tool to control demand and help stabilize the electric grid, instead of forced or rotating outages.
“We might think about a future scenario where — with smart grid technologies — you might be able to prioritize some of the more essential needs of the energy during those times, and perhaps, you know, put off some of the less prioritized energy demands for some later time,” he said.
Instead of shutting off power to an entire area or circuit, Dr. Xie imagines a scenario where a provider could remotely disable appliances — such as dishwashers — to save energy. Meanwhile, the available power can be used to keep essential items — such as lights and heat during the overnight hours — on for everyone.
“That would have tremendous positive impact on getting through those tough moments, like what we went through last year,” he said.
While the development of the technology needed to put this into practice is on the “near horizon,” Dr. Xie said deployment strategies and the market design ideas must catch up. For example, he said utility companies would need to create some benefits for customers when they opt in to this kind of program — making it a “win win situation” to decrease demand on the system.
For example, Austin Energy has a voluntary Power Partner Program, which allows the utility to adjust its customers’ Internet-connected thermostats by a few degrees during periods of high demand. According to its website, it will alert customers before an event takes place and will only take this step in the afternoons on weekdays between June 1 and Sept. 30, excluding holidays. Customers can get a rebate of up to $110, Austin Energy said.
Dr. Xie said researchers across Texas are working on ways to “scale up” these kinds of programs into larger solutions that could help during a statewide crisis, such as the 2021 storm.
“Leverage the power of better computers, better communication and better control devices to scale up,” he said, adding that will allow the state to be “ready to roll out this much larger scale of precision control for future extreme event conditions.”
Investigative Photographer Richie Bowes, Director of Investigations & Innovation Josh Hinkle and Digital Director Kate Winkle contributed to this report.