Thursday, January 10, 2008

GridWise Study: saving energy through smart grid management

A wonderful new study out of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory on smart grid management demonstrates very effectively what this blog has discussed in detail here and here:

A yearlong study by the Department of Energy has concluded that when consumers are given the means to closely track and adjust their energy usage, power use declines by an average of 10 percent. In addition, the study found that households' electricity usage during peak times fell by up to 15 percent.
Additional reporting on this study provides more detail:
The demonstration project was as much a test of consumer behavior as it was of new technology. Scientists wanted to find out if the ability to monitor consumption constantly would cause people to save energy…

...112 homes were equipped with digital thermostats, and computer controllers were attached to water heaters and clothes dryers. These controls were connected to the Internet. The homeowners could go to a Web site to set their ideal home temperature and how many degrees they were willing to have that temperature move above or below the target. They also indicated their level of tolerance for fluctuating electricity prices...
The households, it turned out, soon became active participants in managing the load on the utility grid and their own bills.
As I wrote here in my predictions for 2008: "Some smart people will begin applying the lessons of the most recent technological revolution to the consumption of energy". Key to the success of this study was Internet-enabled technology such as two-way, real-time communication and online banking:
Participants received constantly updated pricing information via the Internet. The ability to connect the homes with energy providers as well as the grid was made possible through IBM technology known as a service oriented architecture (SOA). 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.
Another study conducted in parallel looked at allowing appliances to automatically adjust their power use based on elevated or reduced demand stresses on the grid, thus serving as a “shock absorber” for the grid:
The Grid Friendly appliance project fitted 150 homes in Oregon and Washington with "smart" dryers and water heaters equipped with circuit boards to detect when the power grid is stressed. When that happens, the appliances curtail power use for a minute or two.

Grid friendly" circuit boards could be put in refrigerators, and other big appliances...If every big household appliance in the country were so fitted, the U.S. could cut electricity use by 20 percent.
The study further predicts that in five years, GridWise-type smart system for appliances will be available in 10 to 15 percent of U.S. homes. Currently the cost of installation is $500 and falling.

More information on the study is available directly at the PNNL GridWise website. A good recap of the study is here, while those with extra time on their hands can read through the two 150 page reports that accompany this study. They are dense reads, but the conclusions and additional readings sections are definitely worth a look.

Still, there are many challenges to overcome before this type of participatory strategy can be put into practice:
Many utilities are experimenting with this so-called smart-grid technology, but most are using it to upgrade their own networks, not to let households manage consumption. One big hurdle is that in most states, utilities are still granted rates of return that depend mainly on the power plants and equipment they own and operate instead of how much energy they save.
What’s also incredibly interesting in this study is that rather than focus on subsidies and mandates (yesterday's WSJ article on PG&E $117 million program to subsidize CFL purchases) this project relied on real-time market information and direct price signaling to encourage natural human behavior.

Further, this study adds to the growing body of evidence, such as this IBM report, this SmartPower study, and this So. Cal Edision experiment, that all demonstrate a key principle: The individual energy consumer will actively participate in their energy use with appropriate incentives, tools and information. The question then becomes, are we willing to make them a direct and engaged part of the solution?

UPDATE: couple of great additional readings from the PNNL report Part 1:

Energy efficiency: Super savers: Meters to manage the future
The Path to Perfect Power: Galvin Electricity Initiative

UPDATE II: this post is a definite must-read, offering several different perspectives as to the potential of the concepts outlined above:

Want to Manage Your Energy Usage? How Badly?

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