Program Lets Consumers
by Chris Ingalls
PORT ANGELES, Wash. - As the cost of energy continues to rise, hundreds homeowners in Washington are testing a way to tie the way they use power to its market price. Sequim homeowner Jerry Brous is among them.
With a new computer monitored control system installed in Brous' home, he can now bargain with his power company and decide to buy energy only if the price is right.
Brous' major appliances have been outfitted with control switches and radio transmitters that talk to his computer.
His desktop is now a smorgasbord of real-time information about what each appliance is costing him and what his total electric bill is at any given moment.
Brous can see the wildly fluctuating prices of the energy market and opt to run his washer and dryer, hot water heater and other non-essential appliances when prices are lowest.
"This clearly tells me what this is costing me every day," he said.
On average, there are a few hundred hours every year where sizzling heat or extreme cold drive energy usage to peak levels.
During those times, utilities are forced to spend millions on the open energy market, buying power at soaring prices.
But customers who pay a flat rate on their monthly bill have no idea.
"We need to show the consumer. We need to somehow bring them into the game. They're not part of the system. They don't see those fluctuations in price," said Pacific Northwest National Labs scientist Rob Pratt.
The PNNL is developing the software and circuit boards that make up "smart" appliances that will one day talk to the power grid to relay energy prices and even shut down momentarily during a crisis to avoid the types of blackouts that paralyzed the West Coast in 2001.
And the Olympic Peninsula is the perfect place for this test program. The communities there need more power, but because of the natural environment, the power companies would have a difficult time adding towers and transmission lines.
The Bonneville Power Administration hopes energy conservation can deter construction on the peninsula, which is bounded by mountains and the sea.
Researchers will be watching the Brous' and other volunteers over the next year to determine if the program can save meaningful amounts of energy and customer's money. Jerry Brous believes it will.
"It is impossible to have this kind of information given to users and not drive down their actual amount of electricity that's used," he said.
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