Last week, the U.S. Department of Energy announced that Westar Energy had been selected to receive a $19 million grant to install 48,000 smart meters in Lawrence and the surrounding area.
The entire $40 million project, known as SmartStar Lawrence, would be the first of its kind in Kansas and push the state’s electric power grid into the 21st century. With such a revolutionary project comes questions — so here are answers to some of the more common ones.
What is a smart grid?
The smart grid merges telecommunications with the country’s electric power grid. By using digital technology, the smart grid will open up two-way communications along the energy supply line — from generators at power plants to meters in homes. The improved communication will help utilities better spot bottlenecks and power outages. The ultimate goal is for a smart grid to help consumers lower their energy use when power is most in demand, such as on a hot August afternoon. By more evenly distributing energy use, the hope is for fewer power plants to be needed.
How is a smart meter different from the smart grid?
Smart meters are just one of the many applications that a smart grid makes available. By replacing conventional electromechanical meters with electronic ones, smart meters allow utilities to tell which homes are out of power. Homeowners can see on a day-by-day, and eventually hour-by-hour, time frame how much energy they are using.
Will I have to do anything differently with a smart meter?
Not if you don’t want to. But the information provided through a smart meter is intended to encourage people to look at ways to conserve energy.
How do smart meters work?
Customers will be able to log into Westar’s Web site — WestarEnergy.com. From there, they can see how much energy they are using, nearly in real time, and how it compares with other months, previous years and houses of similar size. By seeing how energy is continuously used over time rather than in one monthly statement, customers can more easily track energy patterns to help them lower their bills. Westar claims that people who take advantage of the information provided by a smart meter lower their energy usage by 5 percent to 15 percent.
As for the utility company, smart meters will make it easier for Westar to determine the cause of power outages and restore power faster. Customers without Internet access can obtain information by contacting Westar’s call center.
Eventually, Westar smart meters will be able to hook up to smart appliances. That’s a technology that will let customers, for example, set their dishwasher to run during off-peak times or for their clothes dryer to run at lower capacity during peak times.
Westar also can send text messages or e-mail alerts to let customers know when their power goes out or if their monthly bill is approaching a preset threshold.
Will Westar control how much electricity I get?
No. However, consumers will be encouraged to use the information to conserve more and to consume less during peak hours.
Westar has a different volunteer program set up called WattSavers, which started in Wichita and is expected to come to Lawrence soon. Through WattSavers, customers are given a free programmable thermostat, which Westar can then adjust during times of peak energy use. In return, customers who volunteer for WattSavers can program their thermostat from any computer with Internet access.
Will it cost me anything?
Not yet. With the help of a $19 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, Westar doesn’t expect rates to go up for the Lawrence SmartStar project.
Eventually rates could rise to cover the amount not funded by the grant and as Westar continues to install the smart grid throughout its territory. In the long run, the intended benefit of a smart grid would be to avoid having to build power plants, which will ultimately be less expensive for everyone.
Will the rate structure change?
It could. With the smart meters, Westar eventually plans to offer voluntary pilot programs with different pricing strategies. Among them will be a billing structure known as time-of-use pricing, which operates in a similar way as many cell phone plans — customers pay more during busiest hours and less when demand is at its lowest. The price structure, which customers would opt in to, is to encourage homeowners to conserve during peak times.
When will the smart meters be installed?
The DOE and Westar are still negotiating the terms of the $19 million grant. Soon after the grant is finalized, Westar plans to launch a public education campaign. Next fall, installation of the smart meters will begin.
Why just Lawrence?
Westar chose Lawrence because of its size and diverse mix of businesses and residents, including the transitory student population. Outfitting the entire Westar territory with smart meters will cost $150 million. The utility company hopes to find out what works best in Lawrence and apply it to the rest of its region.
Where can I learn more?
Westar has more information about SmartStar Lawrence on its Web site, WestarEnergy.com. And after plans for smart meters are finalized, the company will launch a public education campaign.
Customers will be notified before a smart meter is installed, and Westar will give them packets of information to explain how they work.