January 9, 2008 / 11:40 PM / 11 years ago

Smarter U.S. power usage could save $120 billion: study

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Technology to help Americans reduce electricity use when the grid is stressed could help utilities save $120 billion on spending for new power plants and transmission lines, government officials and researchers said on Wednesday after a study in the Pacific Northwest.

A year-long “smart grid” study showed consumers saved 10 percent on power bills and cut power use 15 percent during key peak hours, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory announced.

The small-scale GridWise Demonstration Project involved 112 homeowners on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington. Ron Ambrosio of IBM, which participated in the study, said nationwide use of the method could save $120 billion in power plants and transmission lines that won’t have to be built.

“This research is vital because decreasing power consumption during the busiest times on the power grid improves efficiency and reliability and reduces the need to build additional infrastructure,” said Washington Democratic Senator Patty Murray.

The 112 homeowners were given new electric meters to receive signals from the local utility when power prices are high, and thermostats and computer software that curtail power use at these times. They could set preferences by computer and remotely change preferences while away from home.

A companion study called the Grid Friendly appliance project fitted 150 homes in Oregon and Washington with “smart” dryers and water heaters equipped with circuit boards to detect when the power grid is stressed. When that happens, the appliances curtail power use for a minute or two.

“Grid friendly” circuit boards could be put in refrigerators, and other big appliances — Ambrosio said they will be routinely installed in major household appliances by 2020 or so. If every big household appliance in the country were so fitted, the U.S. could cut electricity use by 20 percent, claims the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

In five years, the type of smart system used in the GridWise study will be available in 10 to 15 percent of U.S. homes, Ambrosio predicted, and in 10 to 15 years in half the country.

Rob Pratt, Pacific Northwest program manager, said the Pacific Northwest study was different from past studies because it offered near real-time responses to stresses on the power grid based on preset presences by consumers.

“We were able to engage electric customers in the moment-by-moment operation of the power grid,” said Pratt.

When the study began in 2006, Pratt said that once the cost of installing such systems at homes dips to $200, it will become almost universal. Ambrosio estimated that the cost is now $500, and falling.

Power prices are highest during peak demand periods. If congestion on power lines of regional grids occurs or a key power plant fails during peak demand, prices can spike.

Utilities have long had demand-response programs that cut power use by big industrial and commercial users, but the real-time response based on consumer choice is the future of power use in America, Pratt said.

Smart grid techniques are a “shock absorber” to the power grid and power plants, giving utilities a chance to “catch a breath” during emergencies, said Pratt.

Most of the technology needed for the smart grid is on hand now, but it will take a decade or so before its use is widespread enough to notice major savings, said Pratt and Ambrosio.

Editing by David Gregorio

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