Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=176609
Story Retrieval Date: 5/22/2013 10:28:18 AM CST
Your local power plant may soon be able to “talk” to your washing machine, and save you money by turning it on automatically when demand for electricity is low. A meter in your home the size of a thermostat could sell energy from your solar collector to the electric company when demand is high. Why wouldn’t you want technology that could save you money and save the earth?
Leaders in the emerging “smart-grid” industry admit that while their technology allows two-way communication between power plants and home appliances, they still don’t know how to communicate the benefit to customers.
“It’s been a stumbling block. ComEd has never had to focus on pulling customers in before,” said Anne Pramaggiore, president and chief operating officer of Commonwealth Edison Tuesday. ComEd runs a smart-grid pilot program in nine Chicago suburbs and the Humboldt Park neighborhood.
A smart grid is a digital network that creates intelligent measurement, control and distribution of electricity between suppliers and consumers. A utility company would collect data from smart meters located in the homes of consumers. The meters would measure usage in real time.
“We are moving from a company that deals in electrons to one that deals in data,” Pramaggiore said.
Using this data, utilities could charge “real-time pricing”—a higher rate when demand is high, and a lower rate during off-peak hours. Consumers would also be able to monitor their usage and the minute-to-minute price of electricity; opt for different usage plans, much like cell phone bills; and better conserve energy to lower their utility bills.
At least, that’s the theory. The plan has received resistance from the members of the public, some of who fear price gouging if utilities raise rates at will. There is also the initial expense of meter installation and purchase of smart appliances. And some consumers are particularly concerning about the privacy of their usage data. Ownership of the information collected has yet to be established.
“It is a big issue that we’ve got to develop as an industry,” Pramaggiore said.
The Naperville Smart Grid Initiative is offering some innovative solutions to address these problems. As part of its three-year smart-grid plan, the city will begin installing smart meters in residents’ homes this summer. Anticipating the backlash other smart-grid projects have garnered, city officials held open houses to answer questions and to hear customer concerns. The result is a smart-grid “customers bill of rights,” a measure that would guarantee privacy for consumer data and transparency for pricing decisions. The City Council is expected to pass the measure Feb. 1.
But there is a difference between Naperville and the midmarket companies Pramaggiore spoke to Tuesday at the Smart Grid Conference.
“We are a public utility. We don’t have a profit,” said Naperville spokeswoman Nadja Lalvani. “We have no shareholders to answer to. It is run by elected officials who also use power in Naperville, so we pass the savings on to the consumer.”
It is unclear how a “bill of rights” could transfer to a for-profit company, but it is clear to attendees of the conference that something is necessary.
“We must make a commitment to the customer that they will spend less,” said Greg Blake, a smart-grid leader at GE Energy Services. “If lost money from inefficiency is improved, then the company saves money—even if the customer is spending less.”
ComEd is planning wide-scale smart-grid education initiatives at the customer and municipal level, and spokesman Antonio Hernandez said the technology platform would ensure that customers pay only for the cost of service. Several presenters said consumer acceptance may just take time.
“Customers have gotten more comfortable with providing information over the internet, and it will happen here, too,” Pramaggiore said.