Smart meter demo ramps up

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NEDO: Study seeks to determine if consumers adjust usage

By Arin McKenna

The smart meter demonstration project is gearing up to make another leap forward this spring.

The Department of Public Utilities is working with NEDO (New Energy and Industrial Technology and Development Corporation) on a plan to install smart meters at every residence on Barranca and North Mesas.

“The objective is to identify a geographic location and put smart meters in there so that we can evaluate consumer behavior when they receive pricing signals indicating critical peak pricing,” said Robert Westervelt, deputy utilities manager for finance and administration. “Are they willing to adjust their consumption when they see there’s a price differential if they reduce their consumption at a certain time?

“If they can reduce their power during that critical peak then there’s a potential to save some cost for the system.”
Westervelt said that for the demonstration to be effective, an isolated geographic area must have 100 percent saturation with smart meters. Barranca and North Mesas were chosen because they are both serviced by a single feeder line.

This does not mean those getting the smart meters are going to see changes on their bills or be charged at different rates than other DPU customers. This is simply a test to evaluate whether people will change behavior when they know there are greater demands on the system and energy is costing more.

Those who choose to be part of a control group will not be impacted by the project at all other than having a smart meter installed at their residence.

The goal of the project is to gather data that could help design the power systems of the future.

Coal or natural gas powered generating plants can respond instantly to peak demand. Power sources of the future, such as wind and solar, will be limited by constraints such as battery storage. One of the keys to making renewable energy more viable is convincing consumers to reduce usage during peak times.

Even today power companies charge more for energy during peak demand.

“Energy costs fluctuate wildly,” Westervelt said. “When there is a high demand, the cost of power goes up. If we can consistently reduce the load to the system during those times, then eventually rates could be affected.”

In the simplest scenario, having enough customers willing to decrease usage during peak times could reduce the fixed rates everyone pays.

In future scenarios, smart meter technology makes it possible to charge individual ratepayers less if they curtail power consumption during peak times.

Although smart meters will be installed at every home on Barranca and North Mesas, residents will be given a choice as to whether to participate in the demonstration or not. NEDO is still working out the details, but they are currently considering three to four levels of involvement.

Those wishing to fully participate will receive pricing signals to alert them to peak usage times and agree to reduce energy consumption during those periods. A second group would agree to get the signals but opt out of responding. A control group will not receive the alerts at all.

NEDO is also considering the possibility of a small incentive fund for a limited number of participants. Although details would have to be worked out if that option is implemented, the most likely scenario is that those participants would be given a credit to work against. The more they reduce peak time usage, the larger the credit they will have remaining at the end of the demonstration period.  

Westervelt is confident the project will have a significant group of people willing to participate with or without the incentive.

“We’ve had a lot of really interested people wanting to participate and to be a part of the project,” Westervelt said. “There are a lot of people really interested in the economy and really interested in energy savings. I think a lot of people want to do it just to be part of that whole effort.”

NEDO will offer a number of notification options, including text messaging or a webpage to log onto. NEDO will also make 100 in-home displays available, which would not only provide pricing alerts but let participants monitor usage and see the impact of making adjustments.

“I would love to get one in my home, because it tells you what your current usage is. If you flip off a light it would tell you how it changed,” Westervelt said. Samples of in-home displays are on exhibit at the Smart House.

During the demonstration period the smart meters will send consumption information to a meter data management system as frequently as every 15 minutes, providing measurable data about whether participants responded to pricing signals by adjusting usage or not.

“A lot of the details of this are still being worked out,” Westervelt said. “The initial phase is getting the meters installed and defining the research objectives.”

DPU will be sending more information about the project to Barranca Mesa and North Mesa residents sometime in February. Meter installation is expected to begin in late February or early March. The demonstration should launch by April.