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High-tech program to test use of electricity in Libby

by Canda Harbaugh & Western News
| February 1, 2011 2:38 PM

Volunteers in Libby will be the first

in the Flathead Electric Cooperative to participate in a pilot

program to see if – when given the right options, information and

rewards – consumers will choose to reduce the amount of power they

use during peak times.

The Bonneville Power Administration,

Flathead Electric’s major power supplier, late this year plans to

significantly increase its peak-time demand charge, giving Flathead

Electric and its customers an incentive to even-out its usage.

“If we can move power from that hour to

other hours in the month, we have a lower cost overall in power,”

explained Flathead Electric’s regulatory analyst Russ Schneider,

who shaped the peak-time project.

During the hours in the month when the

most electricity is being used, BPA, a wholesale power supplier for

the Pacific Northwest, sometimes taps out its resources, Schneider

said. When that occurs, BPA is forced to buy power from other

suppliers at a price that inflates during high-demand hours.

Flathead Electric plans to gather 300

volunteer households in the Libby area and, for the same project

later in the year, 150 households in the Marion and Kila areas, to

test how well a few different technologies work toward lowering

peak-time usage. Volunteers will receive participation rebates, as

well as further incentives when their usage decreases during peak

times.

“The goal is to find out which option

is best for our members that we can deploy on a wider scale,”

Schneider said. “Or, if we learn our members don’t like this, they

don’t want to mess around with it, then we know that also.”

Flathead Electric was awarded a $2.3

million federal grant to fund the upgrades and equipment needed in

order to implement the program, Schneider said, which is part of a

larger BPA-led effort to improve smart grid technology in the

Pacific Northwest.

In Libby, the program begins in April

and is scheduled to last for three years, though participants will

not be penalized for quitting early, project outreach coordinator

Teri Rayome-Kelly said. She had 16 people signed up as of last week

and several others who were interested, she said.

The simplest technology that will be

available for renters or homeowners is an in-home display that

plugs into any electrical outlet and provides real time information

about energy consumption in the residence. The device also sends

alerts when peak-time periods are approaching in order to allow

consumers to voluntarily reduce their usage – put off for a few

hours washing a load of laundry or running the dishwasher, for

example.

The 100 chosen volunteers will

automatically receive a $5 monthly credit during the duration of

the program, as well as be eligible for rebates if data reveals

that the consumer used less power during peak times.

Flathead Electric is also looking for

100 households to allow a demand-response unit to be placed on

their electric water heater. To reduce demands on the system, the

water heater would be automatically cycled off and on for up to

three hours during peak times. Taking the average capacity and

insulation of modern water heaters into consideration, participants

may not even notice the difference, according to Flathead Electric

officials.

“With most water heaters, they’re not

going to notice it cycling because it would already be filled up

with hot water,” Rayome-Kelly said.

Renters may participate in the water

heater option, Rayome-Kelly said, but must have their landlord’s

permission. Volunteers may choose to opt-out of the program for a

designated period of time, but won’t receive their $8 participation

credit for the month.

The home energy network, the final

option, is the most elaborate. In this scenario, Flathead

Electric’s peak-time meters can send signals to “smart appliances”

to alert them to reduce their electrical usage. The appliances are

programmed to stop running or to use lower wattage settings during

those times, though homeowners can override the system. Homeowners

can also track their energy usage on the computer.

To participate in this option, an $800

one-time fee gets homeowners a new dishwasher, clothes washer and

dryer, and the equipment, software and installation required to

make the system work. The participant must also pay the cost of

Internet service, and is eligible for rebates based on using less

electricity during peak times.

“When it’s a peak time and you’re not

at home, you don’t have to do anything to it,” Rayome-Kelly said.

“It will automatically kick down to a lower-energy use, like your

dishwasher would automatically go to air dry.”

Some cooperatives have been successful

in implementing similar programs and others have not, Schneider

said. The in-home display technology has become somewhat common,

though the home energy network is more cutting-edge.

“We’re going from smart-grid light to

smart-grid heavy and we’re seeing, as a member-owned cooperative,

what our members like, what our members don’t like,” he said, “to

see if we can pass positive incentives. We don’t have rate

penalties – we have rebates.”

If the incentives are cost-effective,

they can be implemented on a larger scale. Schneider pointed out an

example of a successful use of smart-grid technology.

“In areas where they’ve had high

air-conditioning load, these type of demand-response systems are a

lot more common because air-conditioning can be very peaky in the

summer,” he said.

The program won’t be implemented in the

Marion and Kila areas until late summer after substation upgrades

can be performed, but Flathead Electric is already taking names of

those who are interested, Rayome-Kelly said.

For questions or to participate, stop

by the Flathead Electric office in Libby or call Rayome-Kelly at

293-7122, ext. 1834, or 751-1834.