A Smarter Use of Power

By Beacon Staff

Paying one’s electric bill is a monthly ritual that, while not always pleasant, is undeniably necessary in modern everyday life. Running a dishwasher or working on a computer or turning on a lamp use electricity, which costs money, and many people pay their electricity bill without giving it a second thought.

But what if there was a choice? What if you could use electricity at a cheaper rate simply by washing a load of laundry at a different time of day than you normally do? Or what if, on a windy day, an excess of energy generated by wind turbines made electricity less expensive for several hours at a time, allowing someone to choose to use their appliances more cheaply during that window?

These and other technologies all fall within the slightly vague term of “Smart Grid,” which can mean anything from interactive appliances to sensors on electric transmission lines to plug-in electric hybrid cars. And while not all of this technology exists yet in a widespread and cost-effective way, much of it does.

To help figure out what works in Northwest Montana, Flathead Electric Cooperative has joined a dozen other Pacific Northwest utilities and energy providers in a partnership aimed at demonstrating how improvements in Smart Grid technology could potentially save money and increase efficiency – for utilities and their customers. NorthWestern Energy is the only other utility in the state participating, with a demonstration project planned in southwest Montana.

Flathead Electric executives hope to hear by December whether their partnership, comprised of utilities in five Western states, will be awarded a portion of the more than $600 million in available funds from the Department of Energy for Smart Grid demonstration projects. Flathead Electric hopes to get $3.5 million of those funds, which it will match.

Beginning in 2011, the Bonneville Power Administration, a power source for Flathead Electric, will alter how it charges for energy and could increase the price during peak hours, which is typically the evenings when most people are home from work and using hot water, appliances and other things that put demand on the electric transmission system.

As a result, it makes sense for Flathead Electric to explore ways to help people use energy at times outside of those daytime or evening hours, according to Kenneth Sugden, the co-op’s general manager.

“Our peak demand wouldn’t be so high and we’d save money,” Sugden said, adding that the Smart Grid demonstrations they have planned dovetail with some of the advances the co-op is already making. For years, Flathead Electric has been replacing standard meters with two-way meters, which are capable of transmitting usage rates back to the co-op, eliminating the need for human meter readers.

“If we were going to spend $3.5 million anyway, we could do this and it wouldn’t affect our budget,” he said.

As part of the demonstration project, communication between the energy provider and the end user would be improved to four different levels, in an effort to determine how much information a person may need – or not need – to save the most money.

At the initial level would be a wider implementation of the two-way meters. The second level of the demonstration would employ an in-home display with more information, showing the amount of energy used. For the third part of the demonstration, Flathead Electric would distribute a certain amount of demand-response water heaters, with timers that can be turned on or off like a thermostat, so the user isn’t spending money heating water, for example, during the day when they’re at work.

The fourth and final level of the project would offer a limited number of volunteers the opportunity to have an in-home display connected to a wireless “home area network,” where someone can see, not only how much electricity they’re using, but those appliances are also communicating with power substations, making them aware of when excess energy is coming on to the system and can be used more cheaply.

As Russ Schneider, a senior data analyst for Flathead Electric who assembled the application for the Smart Grid demonstration, said, this enhanced technology would, “give users information so they can change their behavior, so it not only lowers their bill, it lowers our cost.”

“It’s not necessarily conservation per se,” Schneider added. “It’s moving energy between time periods.”

What Schneider, Sugden and others seek to learn through their demonstration, is whether there is an optimum level of information and control Flathead Electric can provide its customers that saves money and power – and whether customers necessarily need the amount of information offered by a home area network to save money, when perhaps simply setting a water heater to a timer saves just as much, with less expensive technology.

If awarded the funds, Schneider hopes to have the units in homes by October of next year, and plans to collect at least two years of data.

Public Service Commissioner Ken Toole said similar demonstration projects carried out elsewhere in the country average between 6 percent and 18 percent savings just by giving consumers more information about electricity rates during peak hours as opposed to off-peak hours.

“This is moving very quickly around the country,” Toole said, “just because it makes sense, setting aside the conservation savings.”

Nor are the innovations limited to the home. Among many Smart Grid advances, an aggressive effort is underway, Toole said, to reduce the scheduling time required to conduct energy transactions on power grids from about an hour to as short as 10 minutes, an improvement that would greatly increase the efficiency of moving power from variable sources, like wind, into people’s homes. That will also depend on improvements in technology to store power, so it’s available when needed.

“The key to the lock is if we can figure out energy storage, and do it in a cost-effective way; that opens up so much potential,” Toole said. “Five to 10 years out, we’re going to see some major game-changing technology start to hit the table.”

He praised Flathead Electric for its participation in the Smart Grid demonstration project, noting that it’s one of several efforts by the co-op to improve efficiency and explore alternative energy, from its harnessing of landfill methane for power to its inquiries into geothermal power in Hot Springs.

“Flathead Electric, I think, has really taken a kind of leadership role, at least among co-ops in Montana,” Toole added.