Chicago Tribune: Smart Meter, Now What?

The Chicago Tribune looked at how a push by ELPC to include smart grid programs in ComEd’s energy efficiency plan could be a huge win for consumers.

What to Do Once You Have a Smart Meter

By Julie Wernau

The hangtag on your door says ComEd installed a “smart meter” on your home. Now what?

There’s a slew of products available to help you take advantage of the technology to lower your energy
usage and save money. But knowing what will work with the new smart meter can be daunting.

“By and large most customers are really in the early stages of understanding what the smart grid is about,
what’s available and what’s possible,” said Val Jensen, Commonwealth Edison’s senior vice president of
customer operations. “The worst would be a customer who really wants to participate, goes out, buys a
smart refrigerator or some other smart appliance and it doesn’t work with our network.”

In fact, state regulators are so concerned ComEd’s customers won’t know how to take advantage of the
technology that they’ve ordered the utility to guide customers on what products will be compatible with
the smart grid so they’re not stuck buying things that don’t cut energy costs.

An order this month from the Illinois Commerce Commission would require ComEd to list on its website
digital devices and appliances that are compatible with the new smart grid and those that aren’t. The utility
also is setting up a kind of smart grid laboratory this year to work with manufacturers to test such
products.

The Environmental Law and Policy Center, which pushed for the consumer guidance, also wants such
information available at the retail level.

“What we want is for consumers to walk into a store and for devices to be clearly labeled to know that
devices will be compatible with smart grid,” said Robert Kelter, senior attorney at the Chicago-based
Environmental Law and Policy Center, an environmental advocacy organization.

Some Chicagoans will find smart meters installed at their homes this year as part of ComEd’s 10-year
rollout of the smart grid, the name for the system of meters, switches and devices that digitize the
electrical grid to create a kind of energy Internet.

Ultimately, residences’ energy usage could be controlled by a central brain-like device that turns
appliances on and off, dims lights and powers up or down to take advantage of the best power pricing.
There’s even the potential for customers to generate electricity with rooftop solar panels, storing it in a
battery and selling it back to the utility when prices are highest.

But that kind of costly investment is likely in the future.

Jeremy Eaton, vice president of Honeywell’s smart grid solutions business, said most people will start out
purchasing in-home displays and apps for their smart phones that allow them to see what the price of
electricity is at any given time along with their consumption. Others will want their digital thermostats to
schedule air conditioning or electric heating to be as efficient as possible to lower their bills.

The first step for consumers to be able to take advantage of the smart grid is to make sure they are on
ComEd’s residential real-time pricing program, which means having an electricity rate that changes
hourly.

The vast majority of residential electricity customers are on a fixed-rate plan, according to the Illinois
Commerce Commission. Only 9,602 residences had joined the real-time pricing program as of December,
according to the regulator. More than 1 million are on ComEd’s fixed-rate program. More than 2 million
residential electricity customers have switched to alternative suppliers, and some alternative suppliers
offer a real-time pricing program.

There can be a downside to real-time pricing, as Scott Herr, of Palatine, discovered in January.
His monthly electrical bill doubled over last year to $117.28 from $69.89 because the extreme cold drove
up electricity prices. At one point he was paying $1.81 per kilowatt-hour for electricity that on average
cost 3 cents per kwh.

Herr did his best to monitor his electricity usage and powered down what he could. Had a smart meter
been installed at his residence, Herr could have set up a system to make those decisions automatically.

He is eager to jump on the smart grid. “It’s definitely something I’d be interested in learning something
more about,” he said, adding that he’d love to be able schedule when his appliances run with a few key
strokes. Herr also wants to know more about what kind of in-home gadgets he can buy to track electricity
prices.

But not all consumers are like Herr. Some companies are being launched solely on the belief lots of
people will blow off learning about the smart grid or how their appliances can operate more efficiently.

BetterNRG, a Chicago-based start-up, is counting on making money from residential and business
customers who’d rather have someone else to do the work for them, said Mark Rice, its chief executive.
BetterNRG will buy the various energy-saving technologies for your residence along with supplying the
electricity. The cost of the technology will be tacked on through an additional charge on the electric bill.

Rice said the charge essentially would recoup the technology costs through savings on electricity use.
“Customers don’t understand or care enough or have enough time or interest to figure it out,” Rice said.

“We’re trying to make it seamless and simple to figure out what makes economic and green sense.”

Most cost savings are expected to come from technology controls over lighting and air conditioning.
A ComEd-commissioned study from March found that the vast majority of electricity usage in its territory
can be described as waste, and much of that waste could be eliminated with the aid of technology.

For instance, the study found, 76 percent of energy usage from lighting is “waste,” either because people
aren’t turning off lights when they leave rooms or because they’re using inefficient light bulbs. If lights
went out automatically 15 minutes after a person left a room, up to 34 percent of that waste could be
recaptured.

ComEd already subsidizes the price of energy efficient light bulbs as part of a requirement that it promote
energy efficiency. On average, a compact fluorescent light bulb purchased at a retailer such as Home
Depot is $1.20 cheaper because of the subsidy. Ultimately ComEd anticipates smart devices could soon
fall under this program.

When environmentalists hear about wasted energy, they see coal-fired generating plants pumping
pollution into the air while lighting vacant rooms and running air conditioners at lower temperatures than
are necessary for comfort.

Their fears are warranted, according to the study. For air conditioning, 64 percent of energy use is waste,
according to the study, about half of which could be captured by systems that automatically adjust
temperatures when people aren’t home.

“The goal,” said Kelter, “is for consumers to benefit and to get environmental benefits from smart grid as
soon as possible.”

 

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