Imagine you could log on to the Internet to find out how much power you used this week.
If you have one of Idaho Power’s new smart meters, you already can.
And what if you could pay less to wash your dishes or dry your clothes by simply doing them at a different time of day?
If you live in Emmett, you already can. The Public Utilities Commission pushed Idaho Power to install the new meters there in 2004 and since 2005 the company has offered three different rates there for different times of the day and the week to help people reduce their own bills and the utilities’ demand for power at peak times.
These are the first steps Idaho Power has taken to move it toward the potential savings and efficiency offered by so-called “smart grid” technology. Thanks to a $47 million stimulus grant from the Obama administration’s Department of Energy, all of Idaho Power’s customers will have similar tools for reducing their power bills by 2012.
“This is giving you as a customer more control over your rate,” said Theresa Drake, Idaho Power’s manager for customer relations and energy efficiency.
Idaho Power will get new tools to make its larger distribution system more reliable and better able to integrate alternative energy sources like wind and solar power. The company also will get more sophisticated tools to examine customer demand so it can offer new programs to improve energy efficiency and reduce the need to build new power plants.
Rapid population growth in Idaho and eastern Oregon has made Idaho Power outgrow its hydroelectric power generation system that gave residents the cheapest power in the nation. Concerns over climate change have removed possible new coal plants from the table, and all other generation sources cost more than its hydroelectric base.
So experts – from both environmental and industry camps – agree that improving energy efficiency is the cheapest way to keep the utility’s rates down. The same is true for individual customers.
“It’s all about sending signals to the customers,” said Ken Miller, an energy efficiency expert for the Snake River Alliance. “If I use my washing machine at six at night, it’s going to cost more.”
Earlier this year, Idaho Power instituted a three-tiered rating structure that charges people who use the most power – more than 2,001 kilowatt hours per month – the highest rate. That hits people who have to air condition a large house and people who use electricity to heat their homes in the winter.
A family who used 2,001 kilowatt hours a month in 2006 would have had a $109 electric bill. Today that bill would be $163.
(An average home uses about 1,000 kilowatt hours a month.)
Idaho Power already offers a variety of programs to help people reduce their bills. The air conditioner Cool Credit Program pays customers to allow Idaho Power to turn off their air conditioners briefly at peak periods. Farmers get money to turn off their irrigation pumps at critical times.
And they offer a program to help people insulate and make their homes more energy efficient. Compact fluorescent light bulbs are discounted in stores due to a subsidy from Idaho Power.
But many of these programs are underused, Drake said, including one program that offers to install compact fluorescent bulbs in manufactured homes along with free help with insulation and other efficiency measures.
The smart-grid grant will move the program along as much as five years sooner than would have happened otherwise. So far, 120,000 smart meters have been installed, all paid for by Idaho Power and eventually its customers.
The federal grant also will pay for a pilot program in Pocatello that will install a new system to limit blackouts to 500 customers, where today 5,000 might be affected.
Another program will reduce large-scale blackouts.
Eventually, the communications features of the smart meters and the smart-grid system will connect with many of our household appliances to shave off even more power use.
As technology evolves, the smart grid will allow people to store and sell power in their electric car batteries or personal solar and wind generators.
With rates continuing to rise, power users will have to become more informed consumers, said David Angell, manager of delivery planning at Idaho Power, and the smart grid will help them.
“It used to be the rate structure insulated people from the true cost of energy,” He said. “Not anymore.”
ROCKY BARKER, Idaho Statesman – http://www.idahostatesman.com/business/story/967327.html