The federal government Tuesday awarded $1.49 million to the Modesto Irrigation District for energy-saving improvements to its grid.
The grant, part of $3.43 billion in "smart grid" funding announced by President Barack Obama, will help pay for new voltage controls at substations and related work.
The project, which requires an equal contribution from the MID, will assure that the system delivers only as much electricity as a customer needs, spokeswoman Kate Hora said.
The project is intended to work hand-in-hand with the district's new high-tech meters, which are read by remote control and eventually could help customers manage their power use.
"It means that the cost savings from the smart meters we installed will get into customers' hands sooner," Hora said.
The district board must approve the matching funding before the project goes forward. It is expected to take two years to complete.
The project also includes an experiment with time-of-use billing, which allows customers to save money by moving appliance use to night or other times of low demand. They would be able to analyze their use patterns via the smart meters, which might display the data on home computers.
Hora said the district has not determined the number or location of customers who will take part in the pilot program.
Finally, the project will provide 4,000 new meters in Mountain House, a new town northwest of Tracy that the MID serves. It already has remotely read meters, but they must be upgraded to be part of the smart grid, Hora said.
The MID was one of six California utilities receiving grants Tuesday from the U.S. Department of Energy. The largest by far is $127.5 million for the Sacramento Municipal Utilities District for 600,000 smart meters, 100 electric vehicle charging stations and related improvements.
100 projects nationwide
Obama announced funding for 100 projects nationwide while touring a field of solar energy panels in Florida. The smart grid is expected to help move renewable power around while reducing transmission losses.
"There's something big happening in America in terms of creating a clean-energy economy," Obama said.
The $3.43 billion comes from the economic stimulus package enacted in January.
Smart meters have had a bumpy start in parts of the San Joaquin Valley, as some customers complained about spikes in their bills.
Last week in Fresno, more than 100 people packed a town hall meeting to vent their frustration with Pacific Gas & Electric Co.'s new meters.
"The meters, in my opinion, are not very smart," PG&E customer Joe Riojas told state Senate Majority Leader Dean Florez, D-Shafter.
PG&E officials blamed the higher utility bills on summer heat. Spokesman Jeff Smith also said much of the increase came from rate hikes approved by the California Public Utilities Commission in March.
Similar complaints came from some MID customers. District officials said the spikes could have resulted from faulty old meters, rate increases, heat waves or a one-time lengthening of the billing cycle when the meters were installed.
The MID and the Turlock Irrigation District are using a smart meter brand different from PG&E's.
PG&E provides power to parts of the north valley not covered by the MID or the TID, as well as to the central Sierra Nevada.
Smith acknowledged that the utility did a poor job of explaining the rate increase and the multibillion-dollar smart meter project.
He said every meter is tested at the factory. In addition, PG&E has tested 1,700 meters out of the 1.7 million that have been installed.
Florez said the sample was too small to prove the meters are reliable and that independent testing should be done.
The Associated Press and The Fresno Bee contributed to this report.
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2385.