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Get Smart

Thanks to a 2007 state law and federal stimulus grants, smart-grid projects are proliferating across Texas, allowing customers to monitor their electricity usage and control costs. Some utilities are saving money too.

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Earlier this month, Leigh Moore sat down at a computer and could see, for the first time, a bar graph of her electricity usage — detailed enough to allow her to pinpoint a 30 percent spike on a day she ran two dryer loads. She usually hung her laundry outside, but it had rained, she recalled. 

Moore, who lives in the tiny town of Martindale, near San Marcos, is among the first beneficiaries of the proliferating "smart grid" projects across Texas, which are supposed to save both customers and companies money through more efficient use of energy. "It was just really, really enlightening to see how much difference those two things could make in your usage," Moore said.

The definition of "smart grid" varies, but generally it involves improving efficiency by giving customers (and utilities) detailed information, such as ratepayers' daily and even hourly usage. So far, only a few utilities in Texas have this capability. It's brand new: Bastrop-based Bluebonnet, Moore's electric utility, turned it on this month for all 81,000 customers in its Central Texas territory. Several of the big electric utilities in Texas also have enabled some customers to monitor usage online. In March, the website smartmetertexas.com went live, allowing customers of Oncor, CenterPoint, AEP Texas Central and AEP Texas North to track their usage in 15-minute intervals. Currently, the option is available to about 1.4 million customers who have smart meters — a necessary prelude to the smart grid — already installed, but that number should reach 6.3 million in a few years, said Terry Hadley, a Public Utility Commission spokesman. 

Catherine Cuellar, a spokeswoman for Dallas-based Oncor, said one company employee who used smartmetertexas.com saw an electric spike on Friday and Saturday nights when he was out of town and realized that his dog sitter must be partying in his absence.

"I think a lot of people don't realize how antiquated the grid is — comparable to the rotary phone," she said.

The expansion has not come without hiccups. In Dallas and Killeen, some homeowners have complained that the installation of smart meters has caused their electric bills to soar. The PUC is looking at whether the meters are accurate; a report is expected by July 15. Hadley said the testing is almost finished and so far shows that the meters are accurate, but the process of transmitting information to utility data systems remains under review. (Another possibility, cited by Oncor, is that some consumers did not factor in the impact of weather changes to their heating and cooling usage. Also, the old meters could have been inaccurate.)

New pricing structure

A 2007 state law urges that smart meters "be deployed as rapidly as possible to allow customers to better manage energy use and control costs, and to facilitate demand response initiatives." And the federal government has also encouraged smart-grid projects, by awarding stimulus grants to companies. Recipients have included Oncor ($3.5 million) and Austin's Pecan Street Project ($10.4 million).

Many smart-grid projects seek to create a pricing structure more reflective of supply-and-demand realities in the electric world — in other words, more efficient. Right now, most people get a once-a-month bill, reflective of a rate that does not change in accordance with the time of day. But on the wholesale market — for example, when a coal plant sells its electricity to transmission and distribution companies — the rate varies. It's far more expensive during the day, when people are using their air conditioners and washing machines, and cheaper at night when everybody's asleep.

The smart grid will allow people to choose rate plans in which they pay more for electricity during the day and less at night, smoothing out an inefficiency in the system and potentially saving everyone money. Cuellar says that time-of-use pricing plans are already available to Oncor's smart-meter customers. Ultimately, if electric cars become more prevalent, smart-grid plans will help ensure that drivers have an incentive to plug them in for a long charge at night, when power prices are lower. (That's a long way off, however: Plug-In Texas, an electric vehicle group, estimates that the number of plug-in vehicles in the state could be as low as 100.)

Smart-grid projects aren't cheap: They involve meters that cost well over $100 each, as well as fancy new back-office infrastructure. The PUC has authorized utilities to recover costs through a surcharge. Oncor, for example, currently has an add-on of $2.19 per month on customers' bills that is in effect for 11 years; the total cost of its project is $686 million.

Bluebonnet's smart-grid project, six or seven years in the making, has cost $30 million, which is folded into rates that have "stayed competitive," according to the cooperative's chief executive, Mark Rose. (Bluebonnet's rates rose 6 percent this year, the first increase in four years.) Rose says the smart-grid project is saving money by allowing Bluebonnet to reduce its number of employees — smart readers can be read remotely — while increasing the number of people it serves.

Turn on your porch light

Rose, who was the helm of the Lower Colorado River Authority during the mid-1990s, when it went out on a limb and bought power from the first major wind farm in Texas, says Bluebonnet's project is far from finished.

In October, he says, the utility will begin deploying even smarter meters in households in its service territory. This will allow customers to monitor the electricity usage of individual appliances, such as washing machines and refrigerators and air conditioning, and to turn their lights and appliances on and off from a computer anywhere — something that is possible for some Europeans but unheard of in the United States. So customers could, for example, turn on their porch lights shortly before coming home.

Moore, the Bluebonnet customer in Martindale, is planning to retire soon from her Internal Revenue Service job and already plans some changes her behavior. She plans to get an internet connection at home, a programmable thermostat and perhaps insulation for her attic. Reading her usage patterns, she said, made a big difference. "It just drove it home how much you really can control what you do," she said.

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