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Smart Meters: Lowering Costs Could Be a Data-Driven Endeavor

Many electric companies are replacing conventional home meters with smart devices that can be read, as well as turned on and off from a remote location.  These devices can also tell customers how much power they’re using at different times of day, and since some companies charge higher rates during periods of peak demand, consumers can adjust their power use to save money.  Dominion Virginia Power has a pilot program that charges customers less for power during times when demand is low.  The firm e-mails prices the night before, but one consumer says Dominion needs to do more if it’s serious about conservation.

Waldo Jacquith lives at the end of a long gravel driveway, on a high hill in eastern Albemarle County.  He and his wife built a passive solar house under a large oak tree.

“The idea is that it shades the house in the summer, but in the winter the leaves fall off and allows the sun to warm the house, so we can’t put solar panels on our house, because they’d be in the shade all summer, so we had to put our solar panels down here in our pasture.”

Jaquith, who’s a computer programmer, keeps an eye on how much power 14 solar panels generate, and he watches how much electricity the family uses. 

“I built a little iPhone app for myself so that I can see at any time how much power we’re using, how much we’re generating and how much we’ve used over the past 12 hours, so I can see the spikes every hour or so  as my refrigerator turns itself on to cool down, I can see the spike of power generation in the morning as the sun starts to hit the solar panels , and so I’ll check this over the course of the day to decide if I should turn on an appliance or not or maybe change the temperature in my house.”

So what would happen if customers like Jaquith were offered incentives to use more energy when it’s cheap - overnight -- and to cut back during times of peak demand?   To find out, Dominion launched a pilot program with 720 households and businesses, charging more for electricity on a hot summer afternoon and less overnight.  Each evening, it e-mails prices for the following day - but Jaquith says that’s not enough, because making frequent manual adjustments to appliances and thermostats isn’t an efficient use of time.

“It’s hard enough to program a thermostat in the first place.  I certainly don’t want to stand there every morning and do that as part of my daily routine.”

What he wants is a file that would allow his high-tech thermostat and household appliances to adapt based on timely rate information from Dominion.

“There are an increasingly large number of home automation tools and one of the ones we use is called the Nest thermostat, and it’s a company that Google owns, and it learns your movement and behavior in the house.  It has motion sensing, so it knows you’re upstairs right now.  We can keep downstairs a little warmer and  keep upstairs a little cooler or vice versa.  It’s a smart system.”

If Dominion would provide a data file that could be read by Nest, automatic adjustments could mean much greater conservation, and Jaquith says that would actually benefit the company as well as its customers.

“When Dominion charges 51 cents a kilowatt hour, it’s not because they want to make a lot of money.  It’s because they want people to use less power, or else there will be brown outs.  So if they would provide raw data about how much their power costs, then it would be possible for people’s home energy systems to adjust and reduce that excess burden on their power grid.”

None of Virginia’s utilities provide data files, but Jaquith thought it would be easy enough.   To prove the point, he sat down and wrote 44 lines of code in just over an hour using free, open source software.  It checks Dominion’s website for time of day prices, allowing a home energy system to make adjustments that could save customers money.

Of course most consumers in Virginia are charged a flat fee for electricity, regardless of when they use it, and Dominion’s experimental program is the only way they can get a break on their bill by using less energy during peak demand.  In Baltimore, New York, Chicago and many other cities everyone has that opportunity, and Dominion is clearly interested.  It just asked the state for permission to extend its pilot program through July of 2017.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief
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