GE Digital: Smarter Than Ever When It Comes to Clean Energy Distribution

Published on April 3rd, 2009 | by

GE’s MDS Mercury 3650 installation on a utility pole

Earlier this week, General Electric (GE), announced a huge step in towards transforming the electric grid in Houston, Texas — one of the largest grids in the United States.

GE will work with CenterPoint Energy to implement a smart grid system called Advanced Metering System (AMS) that is designed to provide Houston-based consumers with the ability to better monitor and manage electric use and cost in near real-time.

GE is no newcomer to the energy space. Along with Westinghouse, it is one of the oldest ‘movers and shakers’ when it comes to the development and distribution of energy to the consumer, working with development and distribution companies all around the world.

What is a smart grid?

A smart grid is an electricity grid that uses digital technology to deliver electricity from suppliers to consumer electronics like Goodman air conditioning, stoves and furnace systems. This process helps to save energy, reduce costs and increase reliability.  Larry Sollecito, president and CEO of GE Digital Energy (the “brains” behind GE’s smart grid technology), says that the technology applies to more than just the actual energy delivery system:

“On a basic level, Smart Grid technology relates to the appliances and electronics you use at home. But it also applies to the electricity-generating place, whether that is a hydro-plant, or a small distribution generator, or even a photovoltaic cell. The grid itself is about delivery of electricity; a smart grid is about doing this with efficiency and intelligence.”

Sollecito maintains that our current energy grid is old and inefficient. More than 50% of energy gets lost in the transmission process. This is because of the long distances that electricity travels from its point of generation to the point of usage.

Beyond this, most states rely on outdated procedures that require employees from local utility companies to physically check residential meters.  This translates to a significant carbon footprint as well as elevated costs, once you take into account staff size multiplied by distances they travel to your home each month. The AMS will eliminate the need for physical process of meter readings, as utility meter data will be electronically conveyed through the smart grid.

Given the advent of renewable energy as the country’s main energy source over the course of the Obama years, the United States is rapidly growing its smart grid not only to efficiently deliver electricity but also to encourage energy independence and address global warming.

GE’s role in CenterPoint Energy’s AMS rollout

GE Digital Energy will provide MDS Mercury 3650 radios (which are wireless communications devices) to support the electric utility’s AMS, that will transmit electric utility meter data from consumers’ homes and businesses to CenterPoint Energy’s data center.

CenterPoint Energy began replacing existing electric meters with smart meters, last month.  More than 145,000 smart meters will be installed across the Houston area by the end of 2009. The AMS will be deployed during the next five years to over 2.4 million consumers within a 5,000 square mile service area around metropolitan Houston.

“The Advanced Metering System is our first step in developing a smart grid – comprised of technology, automation and electrical infrastructure integration,” says Kenny Mercado, Senior Vice President of Advanced Metering Deployment, CenterPoint Energy.

However, merely replacing the meters is not enough.  The whole idea of the smart grid is to provide interconnectivity from the point of generation to the point where it is actually used. Consumers need a communications media like the MDS Mercury 3650 radios, to communicate with the grid.

“The reliability, ruggedness and long distance capabilities of the MDS Mercury 3650 radios will be key in supporting CenterPoint Energy’s Advanced Metering System,” said Sollecito.

Ultimately, the MDS Mercury 3650 radios will enable consumers to make a variety of informed and intelligent decisions about energy use:

  • It will enable consumers to make cost efficient and energy efficient choices about optimizing energy use during non-peak hours.
  • It will gives consumers the a communicable means to store energy efficiently and safely
  • It will give consumers a communicable means to put energy back into the grid in return for compensation
  • It will give consumers the ability to know how much electricity their appliances are using as well as what electricity rates they are paying at any given time.

CenterPoint sets the stage for more smart technology

Once the AMS, including the communications infrastructure, is installed retail electric providers (REPs) would be able to offer new products and services to their consumers, such as giving consumers the ability to monitor their energy usage and energy prices in real time via the internet. So, for example, consumers on vacation will be able to turn on their lights at night or adjust the air conditioner while they are away.

CenterPoint has long been recognized as a leader in green energy practices. While many utility companies have conducted pilot studies in AMS technology, CenterPoint has actually applied them to a very significant scale. And in doing so, it sets the stage for the development of smart appliances, home solar generators and many other devices that will either supply energy to or receive it from the smart grid.

“This is not a revolution as much as it is an evolution,” says Sollecito. “What CenterPoint is doing is by no means inexpensive. It goes to show how this company that is truly providing a framework for the future.”

There will be some catch up time

But it will be some time before the Houston residents can see the truly beneficial effects of the smart grid as a whole. This is because even though a few photovoltaic electricity generators exist today, they are disconnected from the grid.

As President Obama’s economic stimulus package begins to spur development in the clean tech space, the U.S.A will likely see a larger number of localized players in green energy generation. When electricity is generated closer to the point of usage, (i.e. close to your home via neighborhood wind generators or solar generators on your roof), then you will be able to use the AMS, MDS and other smart grid technologies to control and monitor usage in a manner that minimizes energy travel and therefore loss. This is when the beneficial green effects of the smart grid will actually come into play.

For more information about GE’s industry leading technologies, please visit www.gedigitalenergy.com.

Image credit: GEDigital


About the Author

Reenita Malhotra Hora is an Ayurveda clinician, entrepreneur, writer and mom. Her experience has ranged from running Ayoma, an Ayurveda business to running a natural health practice at San Francisco's California Pacific Medical Center. Reenita is a published author of two books books about health and wellness: ‘Ayurveda - the Natural Medicine of India’ and ‘Inner Beauty’. She is also the Editor for Green Options Media's business blogs and a freelance writer for a variety of print and web publications. In quieter moments, she likes to spend her time hiking, swimming the warm seas, cooking with the family or writing fantasy fiction adventure stories for kids from from 2 to 92. Check out her wisdom at www.reenita.com
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  • Rudy

    Thanks for posting this article! I live in a suburb of Houston, and I suddenly found these white, square, flat-panel anntenas atop 2 lightpoles, along with the 2 utility boxes down below with the GE MDS logo on them. I thought my little town was about to go Wi-Fi, or doing more to spy on each resident! Good thing this isn't the case. Glad to know CenterPoint is just doing more for us to help us save money. Whew!

  • Rudy

    Thanks for posting this article! I live in a suburb of Houston, and I suddenly found these white, square, flat-panel anntenas atop 2 lightpoles, along with the 2 utility boxes down below with the GE MDS logo on them. I thought my little town was about to go Wi-Fi, or doing more to spy on each resident! Good thing this isn't the case. Glad to know CenterPoint is just doing more for us to help us save money. Whew!

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