Near Real-time Info Can Help Consumers be Partners, Not Victims

By Paul Yarka

As California struggles to find the right mix of solutions to its (and maybe our) energy crisis, the response to date from consumers, businesses and the utility industry has been, for the most part, decidedly low-tech: voluntary energy conservation, rolling blackouts and higher energy prices. On a recent visit to a California software company, I noticed all of the hallways and common areas were dark, employees used small personal lamps, and low-energy light bulbs were being installed in fixtures around the building.

Voluntary energy conservation is great. But let’s face it: This approach to conservation is a partial, short-term strategy for dealing with higher prices and tight energy supplies. It does little to empower consumers and businesses to take control of their personal energy usage and actively manage their energy profiles. Consumers should be participating in the energy marketplace as partners, not merely as underinformed victims of the political and regulatory storms that frequently buffet the utility industry.

The required technologies and near real-time information are here right now to help energy users and energy producers work together to create a more efficient market. This technology value chain starts with measurement devices, Web-based access to captured data, and applications that give consumers a clear look at their actual energy consumption behavior. The technology potentially includes automated meter reading (AMR) on short time intervals, smart thermostats, automated home control systems and Internet-based applications that can give residents and businesses a near real-time profile of their energy usage. Through integration with market information, customers can track their hourly energy load profile and learn exactly how and when they use the most, and possibly the most expensive, energy.

Measuring energy usage and presenting load data directly to consumers increases their fundamental knowledge and awareness of everyday energy consumption. The information lets customers see the consequences of cranking up the air conditioning or heating, for example, or running the washer and dryer during times of peak energy demand and peak prices.

The next logical step is for consumers to become active participants in the energy marketplace. Picture consumers, particularly commercial and industrial (C&I) consumers, going online and buying their own electricity or natural gas from Web-based energy retailers or shaving load and contributing excess. With an appropriately deregulated market, appropriate tools, business processes, technology, and the power of the Internet, C&I and even residential consumers could comparison shop online and choose their energy supplier.

This is the beginning of personal energy management, which is a world away from telling customers to turn off their lights and save a little power. This is where we can say to C&I and residential customers that they are truly entering a new era. People can follow their chosen business and/or personal energy lifestyle with the energy consumption they can afford or want to pay.

The technology is here to give consumers near real-time energy information and the control that goes along with it. What will it take to get the technology into the hands and homes of energy users? The business entities of the disaggregating utility industry and customers all need to engage in a little creative thinking and aggressive IT decision-making. Yes, it will also take investment in substantial infrastructure and require creative funding.

A real-world example of how technology can change the way utilities and consumers interact is in place at Puget Sound Energy (PSE). PSE is one of the first U.S. energy companies to run a pilot project integrating AMR, home control and personal energy management.

PSE selected 105 volunteer households to take part in a 10-week Home Comfort Control project. Through its partners, the utility designed and installed a two-way, wireless communicating “smart” thermostat that allowed PSE to remotely turn down customers’ thermostats by 2 degrees for two hours during peak demand periods. Homeowners could override the change manually or via the Internet. Such load management/home energy management systems could become commonplace service offerings from utility and energy companies in the not too distant future.

PSE is now engaged in a bigger pilot project that offers more than 400,000 residential and small-business customers near real-time energy use data via AMR and a scalable customer information system. The goal is to educate customers on the benefits of time-of-use energy pricing.

Energy is becoming a bigger part of everyone’s life. The California energy crisis has served to awaken the entire country out of its complacency about the energy marketplace and years of comparatively cheap power. It’s time to take control of our energy future by engaging utility businesses, regulators, and consumers in realizing the benefits of near real-time energy information access.

Paul Yarka is SchlumbergerSema’s vice president of strategic development. He is responsible for development of new service offerings and utility solutions strategies. Yarka manages the tight integration of client and utility market perspectives into SchlumbergerSema’s business and solution strategies. Contact Paul Yarka at paul.yarka@convergentgroup.com.

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