Smart Grids Can Give People Power to Cut Electric Bills

Article excerpt

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Inside a tiny office in a business park near West Virginia University, Allegheny Power is testing the power- control system of the future.

The electric meters and programmable thermostats on two office walls connect to a large television screen, which a technician uses to monitor changes in room temperature. The screen tells the tech when the air conditioning or heating unit needs to shut down.

Like other utilities across the nation, Allegheny Energy is experimenting with technologies called "smart grids" to find solutions to age-old problems -- inefficient energy usage and rising electric costs.

"For the smart grid to work, it will take a great deal of education of our customers," said Harley Mayfield, an Allegheny Power planning engineer who is the utility's smart-grid point man. "Our customers need to want to save on their electric bill."

The Obama administration is offering utilities $4.5 billion in economic stimulus money to upgrade the power infrastructure, add smart-grid technology to existing grids and connect the grid to renewable-energy sources, such as solar and wind power, said spokeswoman Jen Stutsman of the Department of Energy.

Some wires, transformers and switching systems have been around since the 1950s.

A system linked by the Internet would allow consumers, power generators and distributors to communicate. Power could be delivered from where it is generated to where it is needed -- and from the most convenient source, be it coal, hydro, wind or solar, experts say.

The smart grid would handle 21st-century needs of computers, data centers and other technology. Large appliances could be programmed to operate during off-peak hours, when prices are the lowest.

"Right now, each state has its own utility commission that establishes its own rules," said Greg Reed, director of the Power & Energy Initiative at the University of Pittsburgh and a professor of electrical and computer engineering. "We need to develop universal standards so technologies will be inter-operable and be able to communicate. That's the backbone of the smart grid."

State law requires Pennsylvania's largest utilities to install a smart-grid system by 2013.

"Reducing overall electricity demand through efficiency improvements or similar measures would reduce wholesale electricity prices," said Seth Blumsack, assistant professor in the Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering at Penn State University. "The big question is whether utilities will come up with demand-reduction plans that are measurably effective and cost-effective."

Another component of demand-reduction is the "smart meter," which tells consumers how much their electrical appliances are costing them at that hour.

"If your smart meter tells you it's going to cost $50 now or $5 tonight, you're going to do it tonight," said Dave Loucks, a manager with the American headquarters of the high-tech, power-management company, Eaton Corp. in Moon.

Christian Hallstein, 58, of Penn Hills, however, isn't so sure that people's behaviors would change.

"People's habits are deeply ingrained," said Hallstein, a Carnegie Mellon University professor of German. "You can put off washing the dishes; that's not a problem. Toast, not so much. Breakfast is breakfast. If I could do it without upsetting my schedule too much, then I guess it's a qualified yes. …