As the region was bracing for Hurricane Sandy last week, Montgomery County Council members began discussions on the future of electric utility distribution in the county.
The council’s Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and Environment Committee started conceptualizing Thursday what Utility 2.0 in the county might look like, hearing from experts from across the U.S. about innovations to move the local electric system into the future.
“Few initiatives are more important to our community or are more timely,” said Council President Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Bethesda.
John Kelly, executive director of the Chicago-based Perfect Power Institute, described systems that use small grids and smart switches that mitigate the impact of a fault in the system on customers.
Smart grids that can monitor and repair themselves, updated infrastructure that reduces the frequency and duration of outages, and other innovations were discussed.
Implementing any changes will require Pepco’s cooperation as well as support from utility regulators, said Ronald Binz of Public Policy Consulting.
Whether any of the concepts shared Thursday could happen in Montgomery remains to be seen, said Jerry Pasternak, a regional vice president for Pepco.
“It’s hard to say if the concepts they have in mind are feasible,” he said. “We didn’t hear details, we didn’t hear costs, we didn’t hear how it would work and we didn’t hear if what they were saying is implementable.”
Unlike the systems described by Kelly, Montgomery’s system has reached a crisis, Berliner said.
“It is not only antiquated, it is increasingly vulnerable, not only to storms like the hurricane that could hit us on Monday, but to cyber-security attacks,” he said.
Near hurricane-force winds from a late June storm knocked out power to most of the county for as long as eight days .
Discussion on Thursday stemmed from a recommendation of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s Grid Resiliency Task Force, convened after the June storm to suggest how to improve the reliability of the Maryland electric distribution system. Among its recommendations, the task force suggested the governor tell the Energy Future Coalition to scope out a Utility 2.0 pilot project and to report by March 15.
Montgomery hopes to be the pilot location.
While the coalition’s project is still in its very early stages of development, it is intended to create a road map for shifting the business models of Maryland utilities so they have a financial incentive to improve reliability, distributed generation and energy efficiency while also accommodating new technology in electric service, according to the coalition’s website.
Councilman Hans Riemer (D-At large) of Takoma Park said while Kelly and others provided Thursday an idealistic big-picture of a possible electric future, there was reality to what the committee was discussing because the technology exists today.
Riemer called the pilot “exciting,” saying it was a chance to shape the county’s energy future.