Imagine being put in charge of the energy consumption in your household, using your computer as the main tool.
Today, the New York Times reports on such a pilot experiment involving 112 homes in the Seattle area. The project by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory of the Energy Department, showed that ‘if households have digital tools to set temperature and price preferences, the peak loads on utility grids could be trimmed by up to 15 percent a year. Over a 20-year period, this could save $70 billion on spending for power plants and infrastructure, and avoid the need to build the equivalent of 30 large coal-fired plants.’
How did it work? Each home was equipped with digital thermostats, and computer controllers that were attached to water heaters and clothes dryers. Thermostats and controllers were also connected to the Internet. By logging into the project website, homeowners had the possibility to set their ideal home temperature, acceptable temperature fluctuation ranges, as well as tolerance level for fluctuating electricity prices. In effect, the system allowed people to constantly monitor their energy consumption and to actively decide on the tradeoff they were willing to make in real time between cost savings and comfort. IBM Research helped design the software and analytics needed for the project.
The success of the experiment was as much a test of consumer behavior as of possible energy savings. It demonstrated that given the right tools, people were willing to actively participate in controlling energy use for their homes.
If it was so successful, why not extend it to the rest of the country? The problem is most state utilities have returns that are based on the power plants and equipment they own and operate, not how much energy they save. Unless that changes, the Seattle pilot will remain just an experiment.