Lawrence homes to test smart meters

Each week, Boulder, Colo., resident Ray Tuomey goes online to see just how much energy he uses.

He gets a printout of what his air conditioner is using and how much his solar panels have produced. His energy use is related in easy-to-understand terms, comparing it with what it would take to light street lamps, run a major league baseball field or microwave a pizza.

It’s knowledge that has sparked change.

When Tuomey realized that a third of his energy consumption was being eaten up by his clothes dryer, he started hanging his laundry out on the line more often.

If he is going to stay late at work, he adjusts his programmable thermostat — from the office — to not kick on until later in the evening.

“When you look at your bill from the utility company, it is kind of in abstract terms. This is putting it into a user-friendly terms and bringing it down to something I have control over,” he said.

Tuomey is part of the SmartGridCity experiment that Xcel Energy is conducting in Boulder. The first of its kind, the project allows consumers to monitor their energy use online in an attempt by the utility to shave demand during peak times.

It’s a concept about to be launched in Lawrence.

Last week, the Obama administration announced $3.4 billion in federal stimulus money to push the country’s electric power grid into the 21 century.

Among the grants awarded, the Department of Energy selected Westar Energy to receive $19 million. The money would go toward a $40 million project, known as SmartStar Lawrence, that would install 48,000 smart meters in Lawrence and the surrounding area.

The DOE and Westar Energy are still in negotiations. But when the deal is final, Lawrence residents could find themselves tracking their energy usage online, much like Tuomey.

A new kind of grid

As the Department of Energy puts it, Alexander Graham Bell wouldn’t recognize the telephone’s evolution into cell phones, text messaging and Skype. But for Thomas Edison, one of the key architects for the electric grid, today’s system would look fairly familiar.

In fact, the current electromechanical meters installed in Lawrence homes are operating on 50-year-old technology, said Jim Sanderson, a senior research economist for the Kansas Corporation Commission.

The smart grid is the marriage of telecommunications and the electric power grid, said state Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence.

The importance of building it has been compared with building the interstate highway system in the 1950s or development of the Internet in the later part of the century.

There are different visions of what a smart grid will look like, but it basically incorporates digital technology allowing two-way communications along the energy supply line. For Sanderson, the concept integrates renewable energy and travels into the homes of consumers.

“This is the new idea for the 21st century,” he said.

The overarching goal of the smart grid is to shift some energy consumption away from times of peak demand. For example, in the afternoons of the hottest days of the summer, consumers will be encouraged to not run their dishwashers, dryers and showers as they turn their air conditioners on at full throttle. And in extreme cases, utilities could adjust air conditioners, lowering their capacity for five to 15 minutes out of every hour, to reduce energy use.

By shaving energy consumption during these peak times of use, utility companies hope to avoid having to build more power plants to feed future demand.

To persuade consumers to conserve energy during peak times, utility companies are looking at changing rate structures to time-of-use pricing. Much like phone plans and air carriers charge more during the busiest time of day, utility companies could raise the price of electricity when demand is at its greatest.

Hal Jensen, part of Westar’s smart grid program team, said the utility company doesn’t initially plan on offering different pricing structures. If it does, it would be on a voluntary basis.

And the placement of smart meters in Lawrence homes doesn’t mean the utility will have the ability to turn down the air conditioner.

But Jensen believes even without those measures, the information provided to consumers will be enough to persuade them to change their habits.

“Anything you can do to help shift load off peak periods and defer new generation investment helps not only Westar, but the customer,” Jensen said.

A taste of the future

What Tuomey is able to do today is just a taste of the future, energy experts say.

By connecting the smart grid to smart appliances, homeowners could program their dishwasher to only run when renewable energy is available or for a dryer to shut off when the utility’s energy capacity is at its max.

Many of those appliances aren’t on the market yet. But the Obama administration’s stimulus money announced last week also included funding to improve smart appliance technologies.

In Lawrence, how much smart meters change the lives of consumers is really up to them, Jensen said.

“No one has to change anything,” he said.

The smart grid does come with some concerns. Fears have been raised about its Big Brother-like features and that it could heavily burden seniors and others on fixed incomes.

Jensen said that the information that smart meters will provide in Lawrence would be no greater than what the company would have if it stopped by a house daily or hourly for meter readings.

Before being implemented, any changes in rate structure would have to be approved by the state corporation commission.

“Seniors, how it would affect low-income people differently — there is a whole range of things that the commission would want to look at,” Sanderson said.