Charles Elk was surprised how much he could learn from a digital clock. That's what his in-home energy monitor looks like, and Elk found that digital monitor enlightening. He found himself swapping incandescent bulbs for compact fluorescents, and being careful to turn off the outdoor lights before going to bed. Those lights were costing him money he didn't have to spend.
"It brought the cause-and-effect much closer than I had ever observed it before," he said. "My old less-smart meter was out there happily spinning when I hit that switch before. The same information was there but it was outside the house and not six inches from my light switch."
As an employee of Oncor, the largest public electricity distributor in Texas, the single-family home Elk shares with his wife and two children was one of the first in the state outfitted with advanced smart home energy monitoring technology. By 2012, all 3 million Oncor customers will have access to detailed information about how much energy they are using -- and paying for, via a new Web portal; most of the 800,000 homeowners, who already had Landis+Gyr smart meters installed, could start using the Web portal last week. They won't have quite as much information as Elk, who uses an in-home monitor so he can see real-time data, but they will have access to energy usage data recorded every 15 minutes. (Oncor will be working with seven manufacturers to make similar data available to others who buy off-the-shelf in-home monitors, an achievement unique to the utility, according to Oncor.)
Some studies have shown that smart meter installations help customers reduce bills by as much as 5%-10%, which for the average Oncor customer could mean $200 or $300 in annual savings, according to Carol Peters, the company's spokeswoman. Oncor spent $686 million on smart meter installation, paid for by a monthly $2.19 surcharge on residential electric bills.
Texas draws about half its electricity from burning coal, so any reduction in energy demand not only reduces customer bills, but pollution that causes global warming, acid rain, smog and mercury contamination. Texas, moreover, has a Texas-sized demand, accounting for 10% of the nation's electricity usage, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Elk likens his smart meter experience to filling up the tank. A cent or two per gallon isn't a huge savings, but knowing the actual cost at the pump changes your behavior significantly -- and you choose the gas station offering the lowest cost. Similarly, he noticed that flipping on the lights around a mirror in the bathroom, where he had set up his in-home monitor, caused a spike in energy usage, and cost.
"The first thing we did is change out those bulbs to compact fluorescent bulbs, and that made a significant difference," Elk said. "It translated to dollars. You change those 10 60-watt lightbulbs into 7- or 8-watt lighbulbs, and the entire set uses not much more than one did before.... This is not life-changing, but we probably knocked $4 or $5 off our monthly bill with that simple act."
The effort to give consumers more information about, and control, of their energy consumption and costs, is a big challenge, since the companies providing electricity are paid more if consumers use more electricity, so they traditionally have no incentive to reduce demand. De-coupling energy demand from energy company profits is a big change in business as usual, at least as complicated as the deregulation of the energy industries in many states, which created companies like Oncor that distribute electricity but don't own power plants.
The smart meter installation, which is required by Texas law, isn't the biggest in the country, but it is among the most sophisticated, Peters claims. The meters now spit out data in 15-minute intervals, showing homeowners when their usage and costs increase or decrease; they also communicate outages immediately to the utility, allowing Oncor to potentially react more quickly when electrical service is interrupted. But the smart meters are also sophisticated enough to communicate with home appliances, so that when next-generation smart appliances become available, the meters will be ready to accept the information. That means, for instance, that the dishwasher might kick on automatically at 2 a.m. after having the smart meter communicate an important bit of information: that the price of electricity has dropped as demand hits a nighttime trough.
"There's a whole communication backbone behind the meter that's very sophisticated," Peters said. "All this technology serves the consumer."
That's not necessarily the perception, though. Some have complained that the smart meter installations were accompanied by a spike in the cost of electricity, as if their demand suddenly increased. Peters said that's not the case, and meters are checked and double checked for accuracy.
And despite the anecdotes from Elk and others, Oncor doesn't yet have any data on the effectiveness of the program overall. It should reduce electrical demand, but no one knows if it will. "We don't have the data that we can analyze yet," Peters said. "The data belongs to the customer."
For Elk, the smart meter experience has produced one clear outcome, and one big question. He's seen that having access to the data made him address "low-hanging fruit" like replacing old lightbulbs -- but he's not sure if he would make bigger decisions, like paying more for an Energy Star appliance because he knows it will cost pennies less per use.
"That's the big question," he said. "We'll see over time what the ultimate answer to that is. I do think that putting the information in front of us on a day-to-day basis will certainly push us that way."
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