On Oct. 27, President Barack Obama announced $3.4 billion in funding for 100 high-tech electrical grid improvement projects across the country, using stimulus funds to set energy policy for the nation. The device that makes the so-called "smart grid" possible is a digital electric meter installed on people's homes. Stimulus funds will boost the number of these smart meters to about 40 million in a few years time.
"Smart meters will allow you to actually monitor how much energy your family is using by the month, by the week, by the day, or even by the hour," Obama told a crowd outside a Florida solar power plant. "So, coupled with other technologies, this is going to help you manage your electricity use and your budget at the same time, allowing you to conserve electricity during times when prices are highest, like hot summer days."
Most Ada County residents can already do that, though few know about it. Idaho Power, which has been reluctantly experimenting with smart meters since 1998 and began installing them system wide in January, nabbed $47 million in stimulus funds for a variety of smart grid projects, including meters, hardware to process the new information and better protect the grid, and software to interpret the data both internally and for customers.
One key to encouraging customers to change their electricity habits is offering tiered rates depending on the cost and demand for power, something that has been available in the Emmett area for a number of years, and will soon be available statewide.
"As long as we're not harmed by the programs, we're more than willing to offer them," said Dave Angell, delivery planning manager at Idaho Power. "Luckily in this state, the Idaho [Public Utilities Commission] has been working with us toward removing the disincentives to having new programs."
While Idaho Power called the Emmett program a pilot project, the PUC called it Phase One of Idaho Power's Advanced Meter Reading, or AMR, initiative. The PUC has encouraged Idaho Power to adopt smart meters and AMR since at least 2001. But the company fought the decree for several years, arguing that the technology was not fully developed and that the costs of installing the meters outweighed the benefits. In September 2008, Idaho Power assembled a "manager-level committee" to define what the smart grid would mean for the company, and in January, began to install smart meters across Ada County; 120,000 have been installed so far. Next year, the company will begin replacing meters in Canyon County and points west, and in 2011, the meter replacement program will spread to southern Idaho.
To Idaho Power, the smart grid is three things: the smart meters themselves, the information they provide to help consumers better use electricity and more control over the backbone of the grid including management of power outages.
But to the Obama administration, the potential of a more intelligent power grid can be a lot more.
One example, according to George W. Arnold, the national coordinator for smart grid interoperability, is a new clothes dryer that communicates with the electrical grid through the power lines to determine the price of electricity and to plan the most efficient time to dry clothes based on weather and demand.
But using that type of technology depends on the regulatory environment of the state and the attitude of the utility, Arnold said.
"If the utility companies view their business as basically selling electrons, if you help customers reduce their use of electrons, their revenues go down," he said.
Another aspect of the smart grid touted by the Obama administration is the ability to integrate clean energy sources like wind and solar into the grid.
"If I were running a utility, one of the things that would drive me crazy is this daily fluctuation in load, and one of the things the smart grid can do is level that out," said John Gardner, associate vice president for energy research, policy and campus sustainability at Boise State.
Gardner said that utilities will have the ability to tell customers the source and amount of power available so that if it's a windy day and there is an excess of wind power coming on the grid, customers can be alerted to charge their cars or run electricity-hogging appliances.
"I don't think that that's a piece of information that any utility is that eager to share," he said.
Mike Youngblood, Idaho Power manager for rate design, said that if the company has excess power, they sell it to other utilities, which benefits ratepayers.
While only a few hundred people in Emmett have taken advantage of variant pricing, on average, they have been able to save money and reduce Idaho Power's peak summer demand for electricity. The stimulus funds assume that Idaho Power will offer optional variant pricing to about 5,000 new customers a year for the next three years, starting in Ada County sometime in the next year, Youngblood said.
In a few weeks, Idaho Power will meet with the Department of Energy to negotiate the terms of the stimulus grant. It is a matching grant, so the Feds will chip in up to $47 million of the $94 million in smart grid improvements Idaho Power has planned.
But Dave Angell is not worried about people shaving too many electrons off of their energy diets.
"They still have the same energy content, but peak power is reduced," he said. "What we're doing is managing demand. As more people move into the state and more industry and commercial business, there's always this increase in demand."