Web Factors Into Energy Savings

A growing number of electric companies are hoping to make the Web a primary energy-conservation tool.

A growing number of electric companies are hoping to make the Web a primary energy-conservation tool.

This week, major California electric utilities are expected to sign contracts worth $35 million that will pay for the installation of about 20,000 intelligent electric power meters at the states biggest industrial power users. The new meters will allow utilities to use real-time pricing, which should encourage the biggest power users to reduce electricity consumption during peak hours when costs are highest. The machines will use telemetry to send power consumption data to the utility, which will then post that information on a Web site that can be accessed by the end user.

The California program is the latest — and perhaps highest-profile — use of the Internet in energy conservation. Last month, the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission approved a program that allows Puget Sound Energy to charge its residential customers using time-of-day metering, meaning that customers will pay more for running their air conditioners at 5 p.m. than, say, 1 a.m. The utilitys customers can log on to the utilitys Web site to see how much power they are using at any time of day and what it costs. Utility officials said they have already seen a reduction in peak loads of about 4 percent, or 120 megawatts.

Dorothy Bracken, a representative at Puget Sound Energy, said the program has been successful because it allows the utility to buy less electricity during peak times. Now consumers have "an incentive to shift to off-peak times, where they can be billed at a lower rate," she said.

California energy officials believe the new pricing regime may allow them to reduce peak loads by approximately 1,500 megawatts — or enough electricity to power about 1.5 million homes.

The real-time pricing project has lukewarm backing from business groups. The California Manufacturers and Technology Association and the Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group support it, but insist it must be voluntary. Real-time pricing "sends the right kind of philosophical signal," said Justin Bradley, SVMGs director of energy programs. But he added that there are "often unintended consequences of programs of this kind," and therefore it should be made voluntary to test it before it is made compulsory.

Nearly a dozen electric utilities in the U.S. have installed automated metering systems capable of providing hourly electric consumption figures that can then be posted on the Web. For more than two years, Ameren, an electric and gas utility in St. Louis with 1.5 million customers, has been using real-time pricing to reduce the peak loads at several dozen large industrial companies.

Despite its advantages, real-time metering wont be an instant fix for California, which faces a potentially disastrous summer of rolling blackouts. In addition, making the program voluntary will reduce the amount of energy savings, said Severin Borenstein, director at the University of California Energy Institute.

Energy efficiency analysts said the program is essential for California. "Web-based, real-time energy metering should be done," said Neal Elliott, a senior associate at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, because it forces power users to "make conscious decisions about prices and energy use."