Testing the Smart Grid

  • A smart grid diagram from the US Department of Energy. (Photo courtesy of the US Departmen of Energy)

Some electric companies are working
to put smart meters on our homes.
They want to change how we use
electricity hour by hour. Eventually,
power companies will charge more
when demand for electricity is highest.
Mark Brush reports on a new study
that looks at how people are responding:

Transcript

Some electric companies are working
to put smart meters on our homes.
They want to change how we use
electricity hour by hour. Eventually,
power companies will charge more
when demand for electricity is highest.
Mark Brush reports on a new study
that looks at how people are responding:

Connecticut Light and Power tested the smart grid on about 3,000 of it’s customers. Half of them residential and half of them business customers.

They found that people did respond to high rates during high periods of demand – such as from noon to eight pm.

Jessica Cain is with Connecticut Light & Power. She says there seems to be a limit to how much they’ll change. For example, doing laundry late at night seemed to be a non-starter.

“Doing your laundry after 8pm would be a barrier. And we heard that from customers, both from a residential customer side and then from a business customer side. We heard that changing their business hours outside of that twelve to eight window would be very difficult.”

The power company found the most energy was saved when the utility itself used the smart meter to shutdown things like air conditioners during periods of high demand.

The customers said they liked the “set it and forget it” approach – so long as they could override the system if they needed to.

For The Environment Report, I’m Mark Brush.

Related Links

White House Tug of War Over Last Minute Rules

  • Many of the last-minute Bush rules are already in effect (Photo courtesy of the Obama transition team)

The Obama administration would like to stop some new Bush regulations from going into effect. Lester Graham reports some can be stopped, but many more cannot:

Transcript

The Obama administration would like to stop some new Bush regulations from going into effect. Lester Graham reports some can be stopped, but many more cannot:

A memo from Obama’s chief of staff stopped several rules.

But, a lot more of these last-minute Bush rules are already in effect.

Patti Goldman is with the environmental group Earthjustice. She says the Obama team can avoid enforcing the new rules if the new administration thinks they’re not lawful.

“That they are legally doubtful. That’s the language. And that in court the may need to confess error rather than defend the rule.”

But many of the rules passed by the Bush White House are legally solid, and Goldman says there’s not a thing the Obama administration can do about that.

“Because we live in a country that has the rule of law you can’t just undo everything as soon as there’s a change of administration.”

But groups such as Goldman’s can challenge them in court. And they are.

For The Environment Report, I’m Lester Graham.

Related Links

Paying for Peak Power

  • Advanced, individual meters that calibrate energy prices for each apartment. (Photo by Samara Freemark)

Energy prices are rising, and people are looking
for ways to conserve power. But some rate payers are
saving money without actually cutting their energy use.
Instead they’re changing when they use power. Samara
Freemark reports:

Transcript

Energy prices are rising, and people are looking
for ways to conserve power. But some rate payers are
saving money without actually cutting their energy use.
Instead they’re changing when they use power. Samara
Freemark reports:

It’s Saturday morning, and Ellen and Peter Funk are doing laundry.

The Funks used to do chores when most people do – they would get home from work and
switch on their dishwasher, dryer, and computer. They never really paid attention to
what that meant for their electricity bill.

“I never thought about electricity before. Never, never, never. Except when I got the bill.
But, you didn’t have any control. Because you paid the same price whether you used it at 2 in
the morning or 2 in the afternoon.”

But a couple of years ago the Funks started paying for their electricity differently than the
rest of us. They live in one of only a handful of buildings in New York City that
participate in a Real Time Pricing program.

Real Time Pricing charges consumers a different rate depending on when they use power.

The Funks know that running their dishwasher or turning on a light will cost more at 5
pm than at 10 pm. That’s because they get a color-coded chart every month that breaks
down their energy prices by time block.

“The green here is low. And the green starts at 10 o’clock at night and goes through 1
o’clock the following afternoon. The yellow is medium from 2 to 5 every day. And then
Monday to Friday there’s a high period from 5 to 9. That means stop. I think that’s why
they used red.”

It’s the same concept that makes cell phone minutes cost more during the day. Power
costs more when more people want to use it.

Real Time Pricing can save consumers a lot of money. Peter Funk says his family saves
hundreds of dollars a year by just shifting when they use energy.

“It’s an ongoing savings. We do these things because they make sense economically. We
don’t do it because we’re virtuous, we don’t do it because we’re better than our neighbor.
We just, this is the way we buy electricity because it makes sense.”

Real Time Pricing programs shift around power demand, so fewer people use energy
during peak hours. A Department of Energy study earlier this year estimated that Real
Time Pricing programs could cut peak energy use by about 15%.

That could actually help regions improve air quality and conserve resources by
decommissioning old, polluting power plants. Here’s how.

Most areas have a network of power plants. Usually only a few of those plants – the
newest, cleanest ones – are in use. But when energy demand peaks, the older, less
efficient plants kick in. And those plants spew a lot of carbon dioxide and other
pollutants into the air.

“It’s really not the number of power of power plants, but the ones you have to turn on at
critical times.”

Jim Genarro is a New York City councilman. He also chairs the council’s Committee on
Environmental Protection.

He says the plants that kick in when demand peaks are the worst in the system.

“We have a lot of reserve capacity in the city, but these are the older, dirtier plants, and
when you run those at peak capacity, it really means a lot of pollution.”

And Genarro says those plants cost even when they’re not producing energy. The city
has to maintain them all the time so they can switch on when needed. That wastes energy
and resources. It also means there are power plants that are only used a few weeks, or
even days, a year.

If power companies could cut peak energy demand, rarely-used, polluting plants could
become totally unnecessary. And many could be shut down.

For The Environment Report, I’m Samara Freemark.

Related Links

Car Sharing Gets Profitable

  • Through car sharing programs, users rent cars on an hourly basis. (Photo courtesy of Zipcar)

There’s nothing unusual about renting a car by the day.
It’s commonplace at airports nationwide, but for most Americans,
renting a car by the hour is a strange notion. Renting a car by the hour
is often called “car sharing.” Car sharing is good for the environment
because its users only get the car when they need the car. They usually
take buses and bikes to get around. Car sharing has caught on in a few big
cities on the east and west coasts. That’s largely due to the efforts of a pair
of private companies, Zipcar and Flexcar. Now those firms are poised to
expand their operations. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Todd Melby
has this report:

Transcript

There’s nothing unusual about renting a car by the day. It’s
commonplace at airports nationwide, but for most Americans, renting a
car by the hour is a strange notion. Renting a car by the hour is often
called “car sharing.” Car sharing is good for the environment because its
users only get the car when they need the car. They usually take buses
and bikes to get around. Car sharing has caught on in a few big cities on
the east and west coasts. That’s largely due to the efforts of a pair of
private companies, Zipcar and Flexcar. Now, those firms are poised to
expand their operations. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Todd
Melby has this report:


For the past six months, a nonprofit called the Neighborhood Energy
Consortium has had the Minneapolis/St. Paul car sharing market to itself.
The non-profit group has raised about $450,000 to buy 12 cars. Those
energy-efficient hybrids have attracted about 140 people to join the
HourCar program. That’s Hour with an “H.”


(Sound of bus stop and rumble of passing truck)


On this Saturday morning, Mary Solac is shivering at a bus stop, waiting
for a ride to go pick up her HourCar. Despite the obvious inconvenience,
she says it’s worth it.


“You don’t have to worry about insurance. You don’t have to worry
about gas. It’s like okay, I’m paying what I’m paying and I don’t have to
worry about fixing the blasted car either.”


After a short bus ride, Solac does have to worry about more mundane car
concerns… such as scraping the ice and snow off the window.


(Sound of ice/snow scraping on the windshield)


To date, Solac’s only choice for renting a car by the hour has been
HourCar. That’s about to change.


The nation’s largest car sharing company — Zipcar of Boston — is
invading HourCar’s Minneapolis turf. Nearly 50,000 people now take
turns driving about 500 Zipcars, mostly in Boston, New York and
Washington, D.C.


Scott Griffith is the CEO of Zipcar.


“Over the last several years, we’ve really focused on those cities and getting
them past profitability, past the break even point, to prove that at the
metro market level, that we can make money in this business.”


That track record enticed a venture capital firm to invest $10 million in
Zipcar.


Another big new company is also getting an influx of cash. The nation’s
second-largest car sharing company — Flexcar of Seattle — is about half
as big as Zipcar. It too has a new investor: AOL Founder Stephen Case.
He rented a Flexcar, liked it and bought the company.


In Chicago, Flexcar has paired with a local nonprofit to put 47 cars on
the street.


Zipcar, meanwhile, is also trying to get into Chicago. It wants
government agencies in the Windy City to commit to using its cars
before entering the market. The company hopes that happens sometime
this year.


Business professor Alfred Marcus at the University of Minnesota says it’s
not unusual for emerging businesses to seek government help like this.


“To get this sector going, to stimulate it, it makes sense for their to be
some public involvement, but you would hope this could take off on its
own. I think this is transitional – these public and private partnerships,
and that’s very typical when industries start.”


In Minneapolis/St. Paul, the University of Minnesota is guaranteeing
Zipcar a $1,500 per month per vehicle subsidy, but once Zipcar meets the
$1,500 minimum, that subsidy goes away. Zipcar says it expects to do
just that in three months.


At the moment, Zipcar is growing fast. It had revenues of about $15
million in 2005. CEO Griffith says it expects to double that this year, but
Alfred Marcus with the University of Minnesota says over the long-term,
Zipcar faces big hurdles.


Zipcar has only had success in large, densely-populated cities. Its target
market is young people without cars who are highly price sensitive, and
then there’s the question of where to keep the cars. They have to be
conveniently located to the people who might want to use them.


Marcus says that if these start-ups continue to grow, someday they might
be gobbled up by bigger companies.


“The ultimate aim of Flexcars or Zipcars may be to build up a fringe
business, get it going and have a rental car company buy them or have even
have a conventional automobile company by them.”


But the car-sharing company owners say they have other plans. Zipcar
boss Scott Griffith says he’s working on a 10-year plan to make Zipcar an
international company. Flexcar owner Stephen Case says he bought that
firm “to build it” and not to “flip it.”


For the GLRC, I’m Todd Melby.

Related Links