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Last updateWed, 01 Oct 2014 10pm

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Alachua eyeing smart grid technology

ALACHUA – In the future, the City of Alachua may see an easier method for electric and water billing for both the consumer and the city’s public service department.

During a Tuesday workshop, the Virginia-based company Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) presented a plan for the city to implement a Smart Grid, which would bring improvements to the city’s operations and increase energy efficiency.

According to the United States Department of Energy, “Much in the way that a ‘smart’ phone these days means a phone with a computer in it, smart grid means ‘computerizing’ the electric utility grid. It includes adding two-way digital communication technology to devices associated with the grid.”

If the city agrees to the company’s plan, SAIC would cover the initial costs of deploying Smart Grid technology to Alachua’s nearly 8,000 electric and water meters located throughout the city. For SAIC, this means replacing nearly 80 percent of the current meters and updating the remainder. The company would also be responsible for managing and gathering the data that the new meters would produce.

The process of considering a move to smart grid technology is still in the preliminary stages at the city. SAIC will provide a business plan for city staff to examine, and the plan would have to be approved by the Alachua City Commission. Once approved, SAIC said it would take about four months for the company to deploy the Smart Grid infrastructure, and the city to see benefits.

The city would be responsible for paying SAIC either through a five-year or a seven-year plan. Steve Root of SAIC said the Smart Grid would cost the city an estimated $3.3 million. If the city chooses to continue with the SAIC management and security after the initial contract expires, the city would pay an annual fee.

Mike New, the Public Services director, said that the plan intends to be implemented without passing any costs to consumers and without firing any current employees.

SAIC installed a Smart Grid in Lakeland, Fla., and the city experienced an estimated 14,000 ton carbon footprint savings. It is also estimated that the grid technology could save the city an estimated $400,000 a year. SAIC also provided the Smart Grid technology to four Alaskan villages, including Kipnuk.

The Smart Grid increases meter accuracy, remotely connects and disconnects electric accounts and remotely reads water and electric meters. The technology will allow the city to deploy fewer servicemen to houses for meter-related needs. Smart Grid technology provides hourly updates so a utility company can be ready to bill a customer on a day-to-day basis, unlike current systems in Alachua that require a 10- to 15- day window.

With the system, the city will be able to see instantly the moment an outage occurs. Currently, the public service department waits until a call is received to find out that an outage has happened. With the Smart Grid, cities can be proactive instead of reactive, said David Smith of SAIC. The city would also receive tilt alerts if the meter was tampered with or moved. Tilt alerts can be triggered by a person attempting to tinker with the system or a tree falling on the meter.

Concerns were raised by the City Commission about security issues. SAIC said that the security provided was top of the line, that they work with the Department of Defense and Department of Energy and employees work to ensure that no one can hack into the system. The Smart Grid system requires three forms of identification to access the program.

“I’m excited as can be because I’m a technology guy,” Mayor Gib Coerper said.

He said he firmly believes that giving the consumers the ability to go online and manage their own electricity and water usage would be a good tool to have in the community.

The Smart Grid system allows customers to access their own website that would provide hourly, daily and monthly electricity use. From this site, customers can see how different energy-saving ideas, such as cutting off all the lights or keeping the AC off, can lower daily energy use and save them money.

SAIC was established in 1969 by Dr. J. Robert Beyster and a group of scientists. The company now employs more than 40,000 people and works with the federal government and the military to create innovative solutions to a wide range of questions. SAIC is working to find cures for cancer, set up advance tsunami warning systems and build next-generation robotics that will help protect and support military troops abroad. The company aims to improve national security, health, cybersecurity and energy usage and environmental protection.