NB Power and the New Brunswick government are deepening their relationship with the global engineering firm Siemens, handing over more taxpayer dollars while consumers wait to see the benefits of smart–grid technology.

Political leaders and company officials hosted a splashy media event Thursday to launch a new initiative called the Smart Grid Innovation Network, which will help companies develop new energy–efficiency products.

'We're now at the point where we're ready to go public and connect customers.' - Brad Wasson, NB Power

They touted the program as New Brunswick's arrival on the world stage, while facing questions about why energy-saving tools already promised in 2012 still aren't widely available to NB Power customers.

Siemens Canada signed a $35 million contract with NB Power in July 2012 to help the utility develop a so-called smart grid to shift energy generation and consumption away from peak demand periods.

Siemens also received $537,000 in payroll rebates from Invest New Brunswick, at the time, to create jobs at its Fredericton lab. On Thursday, Opportunities New Brunswick, the province's new economic development agency, said it was handing over another $840,000.

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Brad Wasson, director of the Reduce and Shift Demand program at NB Power, says the various functions of the smart thermostats — which will communicate with the utility via the Internet — have to be checked carefully. (CBC)

The federal government's Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency is kicking in another $2 million for the new innovation network.

One of the key products in the Smart Grid plan, "smart thermostats" that let customers and NB Power reduce electricity consumption, are only now being installed in 150 homes as part of a pilot project.

Brad Wasson, who heads the program for NB Power, says the various functions of the thermostats — which will communicate with the utility via the Internet — have to be checked carefully.

"All of that stuff has to be co–ordinated, and we're trying to make sure that it's fool–proof and all the checks and balances are put in place before we go public," he said.

The entire Smart Grid will be run by what's called integrated load management software, and "it took us a while to put that software together, to get it into a lab to test it and make sure it works," Wasson said. "We're now at the point where we're ready to go public and connect customers to these types of tools."

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Keelen Gagnon runs SimpTek, a Fredericton company is developing the software for the thermostats. (CBC)

But NB Power's own filings with the Energy and Utilities Board say the smart thermostat program "could be" running by winter 2017–18, still two years away.

Keelen Gagnon, the chief operating officer of SimpTek, a Fredericton company that is developing the software for the Smart Grid, says sometimes large organizations such as NB Power and Siemens can't move as quickly as small start-–ups like his.

"They have certain mandates and things to meet," he says. "We can move much quicker on certain aspects, because we're focused on only one objective while larger organizations have many divisions and many things to concentrate on."

Brick heaters

Another product NB Power is piloting is a heater that heats bricks during low–demand times, then lets customers draw on that heat during high–demand times.

By shifting demand, the utility can reduce the amount of electricity it needs to generate, which also helps reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

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Robert Hardt, chief executive officer at Siemans Canada, says the first three years of the company's contract with NB Power involved "a lot of testing." (CBC)

But, Wasson says it isn't quick to turn a century–old power electricity-selling utility into an organization that deters people from consuming energy.

"A hundred years of an infrastructure behaving and thinking one way, then actually pivoting and going in a new direction — it's taken a while for us to pull it all together, to get a common vision of where we're going, and put in place the bits and pieces to make it work."

No performance targets provided

Robert Hardt, chief executive officer of Siemans Canada, says the first three years of the company's contract with NB Power involved "a lot of testing" but now, "it's coming, and it's coming faster and faster ... But it has to be done very thoroughly, so that it really works and it's safe and it shows the benefits."

NB Power officials didn't provide any performance targets for the smart grid by which its success could be measured.

But Wasson says one measure will be the cost savings of reaching the ultimate goal: reducing electricity consumption by 609 megawatts, roughly the equivalent of what one power plant generates.

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Gaetan Thomas, NB Power's chief executive officer, said the new innovation network will make the utility and the province "the smart–grid capital of the world." (CBC)

"As we implement these programs, we're avoiding investment in a power plant we'd otherwise have to build if we didn't find a way to reduce or shift energy," he said. The payback is there in the avoidance of ultimately spending billions of dollars on building power plants."

Despite such long–term goals and slow progress so far, there was no shortage of lofty rhetoric at Thursday's event.

Gaetan Thomas, chief executive officer of Nb Power, said the new innovation network will make the utility and the province "the smart–grid capital of the world," while Hardt said the program will be "a reference project not only for Siemens Canada, but for Siemens globally, and also for the entire energy space worldwide."

Donald Arseneault, minister of energy, joined in, saying people "around the world" were watching the initiative. And David Burns, the vice–president of research at the University of New Brunswick, which is a partner in the project, added that it is "really going to change the world."