BALTIMORE -- In a mobile command center parked near a football stadium, Bob Johnson awaits the arrival of a convoy of utility repair trucks from Georgia, part of an army of repair crews called in to attack the wreckage of power lines, poles and transformers caused by Hurricane Sandy.
Behind him, a display screen shows a satellite map where outages are presented as red circles, staging areas for crews are flagged with GPS tags to direct crews to their destinations, and online updates track the progress of repairs.
Johnson is the director of emergency preparedness for ComEd, the Chicago utility that is part of Exelon Corp. The trailer, trucked in from Chicago by a team from Exelon, the parent of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., is one element of the expanded but still piecemeal U.S. smart grid infrastructure that is getting its most extensive test in the storm's wake.
When the storm struck Monday, Pepco, the utility serving the nation's capital and its Maryland suburbs, began getting wireless signals from smart meters on its network registering where individual customers had lost power, said Marcus Beal, senior project manager for Pepco's smart meter program.
One of the first movers to install smart meters, Pepco has 725,000 in place and had activated 425,000 of them before the storm struck. Instead of relying solely on customers to call in outage information on specific neighborhoods, Pepco dispatchers can track damage based on smart meter signals that are automatically linked into the utility's outage map, guiding priorities for deploying repair crews, Beal said. As repairs proceed, the utility is also able to "ping" meters remotely to verify where and when power has been restored.
"They certainly improve recovery time," Beal said, "without a doubt. They help to improve the efficiency of the restoration."
The deployment of smart meters -- the most visible of the smart grid technologies to consumers -- was a hallmark of the Obama administration's clean energy program at the start of the administration. While a few states had moved first, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 channeled $3.4 billion of stimulus funds into smart meters and other advanced grid technologies, giving utilities a powerful incentive to launch or accelerate meter replacements, said David Henschel, a senior analyst with the IHS consulting firm.
The 100 energy companies selected by the Energy Department in 2009 had to match their government grant with ratepayers' contributions.
Pepco's share of the stimulus money was $44.6 million. BG&E got $200 million.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission estimates that the percentage of meters in the United States using the new digital technologies increased from 6.5 percent in 2009 to between 13 percent and 18 percent last year. IHS projects that by the end of this year, one-third of all meters in North America will be advanced smart versions with two-way communications capability.
But the spurt of installations is dropping dramatically as the last of the stimulus money is spent, Henschel said. "New orders are already way down," he added.
"The stimulus money made it a much easier decision" for utilities, Henschel said. "Now utilities have to look at it more carefully. Can they realize the full value of the investment without that assistance? And it's tougher," he said -- tougher for utilities and the utility commissions that oversee them.
A combination of slow demand growth for electricity due to the economy's lagging pace and relatively cheap power because of the shale gas boom has also weakened the case for advanced meter investments, with the federal government now on the sidelines.
In addition to supporting smart meter installations and other advanced systems for transmission and distribution networks, the Obama administration also funded experiments to test consumer interest using new technologies to conserve power and shift electricity use away from peak demand periods, when wholesale power costs spike. Data from these pilot projects are still coming, but the results so far indicate the best results come from projects where utilities use smart grid technology to conserve power by precise regulation of grid voltages without the consumers ever knowing it, rather than systems that require consumer actions, Henschel said.
Experts conclude that an expansion of smart meter usage by consumers requires a shift to real-time electricity pricing that shows how high wholesale prices go during the day -- underscoring potential savings from conservation or shifting the times of appliance usage. But real-time pricing is not spreading in the United States.
"The current cost of electricity just isn't high enough" to provide strong motivation for consumer use of smart grid tools, Henschel said.
Girding for grid fights
Meanwhile, the Obama administration's clean energy initiative has been pulled into the partisan infighting in Congress and the presidential campaign.
During their debates, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has repeatedly criticized President Obama for investing "$90 billion into green jobs," saying the money could have been better spent in other ways, and has called the stimulus program a failure. Independent fact checkers say that shorthand treatment substantially distorts the impact of the administration's program. More than half of the spending supported expansion of wind and solar power and energy efficiency improvements, and both continue to provide economic and energy returns. About $10 billion was spent for a range of digital grid technologies. How much this issue matters to voters is hard to detect.
Henschel said that while smart meter installations are expected to slack off, the overall investment by utilities in grid upgrades cannot. A combination of an aging grid infrastructure and the prospect of increasingly bad weather impacts requires attention, he said.
So does the possibility of man-made threats. "The smart grid increases the complexity of the system," said Michael Assante, the former chief security officer of the North American Electric Reliability Corp., the federally designated grid monitor. "There is more technology, and more networks highly interconnected to share information. You've increased the overall attack surface," he said in a previous interview. "And you are deploying it at such a scale, it's a real challenge to manage and maintain security. We should deploy the technology" because of the range of benefits it promises, he said. "But we must learn where the weaknesses are."
The second major reason for smart grid investment -- its potential to conserve energy and reduce the need for new power plants -- may not be compelling to most of the public now, but that will change in time, said Eugenie Birch, co-director of the Penn Institute for Urban Research.
"The fact that our energy at this point is cheap is a short-term situation. The fact that we are producing major amounts of greenhouse gas emissions is also something we should be worried about," she said. "This is a long-term view. It's not tomorrow's view."