User-controlled electricity saved money; stress on power grid

The Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory said today the results of two, year-long power grid programs that let customers control their own power usage saved them 10% on electricity bills and reduced peak power requirements by 50% for days on end.  

First, in the Olympic Peninsula Project found homeowners were willing to adjust their individual energy use based on price signals -- provided via information technology tools. Then the Grid Friendly Appliance Project demonstrated that everyday household appliances can automatically reduce energy consumption at critical moments when they are fitted with controllers that sense stress on the grid. Both studies helped reduce pressure on the grid during times of peak demand.  

The 112 homeowners who participated in the Olympic Peninsula project received new electric meters, as well as thermostats, water heaters and dryers connected via Invensys Controls home gateway devices to IBM software. The software let homeowners customize devices to a desired level of comfort or economy and automatically responded to changing electricity prices in five-minute intervals.

To reduce usage in peak periods, when electricity is most expensive, the software automatically lowered thermostats or shut off the heating element of water heaters to the pre-set response limits established by individual homeowners. Customers received constantly updated pricing information via a Web site. A "virtual" bank account was established for each household and money saved by adjusting home energy consumption in collaboration with needs of the grid was converted into real money kept by the homeowners. With the help of these tools, consumers easily and automatically changed how and when they used electricity, for their own financial benefit and the benefit of the grid, the DOE stated in a release. 

Meanwhile, in the second program called the Grid Friendly Appliance project, Grid Friendly Appliance (GFA) controllers were embedded in dryers and water heaters in 150 homes in Washington and Oregon. The GFA controller is a small electronic circuit board developed by researchers at PNNL.

The GFA controller detects and responds to stress on the electricity grid. When stress is detected, the controller automatically turns off specific functions like the heating element in the dryer. This momentary interruption can reduce electricity consumption enough to stabilize the balance between supply and demand on the grid without the need to turn on inefficient gas-turbine generators, according to the researchers.  T

he study found that Grid Friendly Appliance controllers have the technical capacity to act as a shock absorber for the grid and can prevent or reduce the impact of power outages. Such events occurred once a day on average, each lasting for up to a few minutes. The appliances responded reliably and participants reported little to no inconvenience. The vast majority of homeowners in the study stated they would be willing to purchase an appliance configured with such grid-responsive controls, the group said.  

The PNNL work is similar to other projects going on across the country that seek to get consumers involved in the electricity process.  Pennsylvania lawmakers recently moved to make curbing electricity costs easier by requiring utilities to offer real-time pricing to businesses and consumers through high-tech wireless meters so customers or third party companies can control their own use as power prices climb. 

Illinois’s ComEd utility recently made a real-time-pricing program permanent and available to all its customers. Its goal is to sign up 110,000 over the next several years. Utilities too have expanded programs that promote energy-saving equipment, using efficient light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, or compact fluorescent lights, variable-speed motors and efficient chillers. They also have been expanding programs that give them greater ability to cycle air conditioners, again reducing overall energy consumption and peak use. 

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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