In response to a White House challenge, SDG&E in January was among the first of several utilities to offer customers quick online access to energy usage data with the click of an easy-to-use "green button." To supplement the content, the utility has teamed with Arlington, Va.-based Opower on a pilot project that will provide 30,000 customers with twice-monthly paper reports that track their energy habits over time and compare recent consumption levels against neighborhood data.
The $25 million Borrego Springs initiative, which launches late this year, is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, California Energy Commission, and SDG&E. Niggli says the community will serve as a "living, breathing laboratory" for the capabilities of a microgrid. The network will draw power from solar, rely on diesel as back-up, tap energy stored in special batteries, and be self-healing, meaning it can detect, diagnose, and isolate problems and shut-off or reroute power depending on the grid's condition. Local residents will participate by reducing energy usage during periods of peak demand, such as heat waves.
Microgrids offer a cost-efficient way to serve remote communities and are particularly suitable for military installations and universities, where power outages pose extra security and safety risks, experts say. Niggli notes they could have important implications for major cities, too. If large grids are segmented into microgrids, "this can help improve reliability and restore service quickly" when there are transmission interruptions or distribution challenges, he explains.
Regarding the installation of electric-vehicle chargers, SDG&E is part of the EV Project, a partnership that includes the U.S. Department of Energy; ECOtality, a manufacturer of recharging equipment; Nissan, and Chevrolet, which is the largest electric vehicle infrastructure build-out in the United States. SDG&E also has a patent on a "smart transformer" that sends wireless signals to electric cars to control when they recharge to avoid circuit overloads.
What's next for SDG&E? Niggli says the company's primary focus is to invest in areas "that will improve our customers' ability to use our product well." Which means finding fresh ways to live up to that new motto: Connected.
Corrected 06/12/2012: A previous version of this article misstated the location of Southern California Gas’ service territory. It includes Los Angeles and extends to the Mexican border.