Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Smart Grid: A New Way To Look At Energy

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to gather with a group of local bloggers at Alana's (amazing restaurant with to-die-for food!) to learn more about the GridSmart program through our local energy provider, AEP. Like most readers, I pay my electric bill each month, groaning at how much I'm spending but never really thinking about how much energy we're using or how that energy is managed and delivered to us.

AEP is starting a pilot program of SmartGrid technology (provided by Silver Springs Networks) in the northeast corner of Columbus to evaluate if this technology could help better manage energy consumption, reduce outages, save consumers money by allowing them to participate in choosing how they pay for their energy use, and develop more environmentally friendly ways to save and generate energy.

At the moment, a meter reader comes to our house each month and we get a bill for the total amount for that month. I can't tell if I'm using a lot of energy one day and not as much the next, and I have little control over keeping track of my energy usage during the month. Now imagine that my meter was digital with a chip that constantly transmitted data back and forth across a secure network between my house and AEP. This network is vast and allows the energy company to manage and track energy in regions, in neighborhoods, and even your own house. I'd also have complete access to my home's energy usage with the ability to track it down to fractions of an hour.

old meter on the left, digital smart meter on the right

One enormous benefit of this new technology is reducing the number and length of power outages. If the meter can communicate back and forth with the power company, they won't need to rely on phone calls to tell them there is an outage - the system will tell them who has no power and where the problem is. Also, power can be re-routed for many people with this network, making it easier to get the lights back on even faster for most people. Another component will feature a battery-backup to be shared by several neighbors, so your power can shift over to a local battery backup until repairs can be made.

This new technology will also allow consumers to opt in to new models for buying their electricity. Energy consumption is highest during the afternoon, especially in the summer when everyone is trying to keep their homes cool. New pricing options might include paying a lower cost for off-peak energy usage, but a slightly higher cost for peak periods - this would be perfect for families who are out of the house during those hours and don't need a large amount of energy during that time. Best of all - you can opt-in only if the plan fits you!

Another proposed program - called SmartCooling - would give a communicable digital thermostat to homes with the agreement that on summer days of extremely high energy usage the power company could increase your thermostat by up to 4 degrees for a couple of hours to help with the burden on the grid. In exchange, you'd receive an $8 credit on your bill every month, including months when it's not needed. And you could opt-out at any time, either for a single event or for the entire program all together.

Personally, I love these ideas and only wish this program was already in my part of Columbus. I'm a control-freak over my money, so being able to see daily or even hourly energy usage in my home would be awesome. I'd get a kick out of trying new things and seeing how much of a difference it made in our usage.

Some might argue that the SmartGrid technology is an intrusion and affects our privacy, but I don't see the argument. The privacy and encryption controls used by AEP are similar to the ones used by banks for online banking. The number of people who would have access to my private records would be small, and honestly, I don't care that much if people see how much energy we use.

Knowing that AEP would be able to better predict and prepare for peaks in energy use and therefore reduce their need for additional fossil fuel burning plants is well worth any minor risks to privacy. And having fewer and shorter power outages is an enormous benefit as well. I see the GridSmart program as a way for AEP to be more transparent with consumers about energy generation and consumption. And hey, digitally reading the meter is way better than having a meter reader tromping around my backyard!

SmartGrid technology is the way of the future, and Columbus is lucky to be one of the early-adopter markets. Other cities have integrated the SmartGrid technology ahead of us with great results, and I'm hopeful we'll see the same benefits here as well. Saving money through better use of resources, all while providing greater access to my personal energy use information and making me a more informed consumer sounds like a great idea to me, and I only wish they'd hurry up and implement this in my part of Columbus!

The GridSmartOhio website also features a huge amount of energy savings tips even if you're not on the pilot program. Take a look to learn how LED Christmas lights can save you money, and how to recycle your energy-efficient CFL lightbulbs. 

Full disclosure: I wrote this post after attending an informational luncheon on behalf of Silver Spring Networks and Mom Central Consulting and received a gift bag and gift card as a thank you for taking the time to participate.

1 comment:

Peter said...

Christina, thanks for your interest in this topic. Energy conservation can be an important budget difference maker for every home and equally important a huge difference maker for our climate.

To your point about "wishing" there were solutions today for your region, well the fact is there are proven "today" solutions for all home owners across the country providing real time visibility into their energy usage and more.

Full disclosure we are in this space and had our energy monitoring product, the PowerCost Monitor, on the market since 2005 but earlier this year we partnered with Microsoft Hohm to really add to the homeowner tool kit for energy conservation.

Please check us out at www.bluelineinnovations.com or www.microsoft-hohm.com.

Thanks again for your interest,

Peter Porteous
CEO
Blue Line Innovations