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TMCNet:  NorthWestern Energy partners with 200 Helena residents on smart grid experiment

[March 17, 2013]

NorthWestern Energy partners with 200 Helena residents on smart grid experiment

Mar 17, 2013 (Independent Record - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Ryan Wilkinson is one of 200 Helena residents and two government buildings involved in Northwestern Energy's smart grid energy project.

"It's still pretty experimental," Wilkinson said of the project Thursday afternoon, reaching for a small digital device about the size of a GPS system you might see in a car. "This is the in-home display, It's probably the part I use the most. This thing pretty much tells you what's going on." His house was the first in the city to be equipped with the smart grid technology: a smart meter, digital control display and all the wireless and digital radio equipment that allows he and NorthWestern Energy to track his electricity usage.


The in-home display showed that by about 1 p.m. Thursday he had used $1.09 worth of electricity. It also show how much his electricity had used the day before: $2.46.

The project is aimed at testing emerging smart grid energy technology that could lead to lower energy costs and fewer outages for consumers and more efficient energy management for NorthWestern, according to Bill Thomas, NorthWestern's manager of Regulatory Support Services.

NorthWestern's project, which started in 2010 and runs through 2014, costs about $4.2 million, half which the company is paying for, the other half comes from federal stimulus dollars. The experiment is part of the larger $178 million Pacific Northwest Smart Grid Demonstration Project.

Through the experimental devices NorthWestern installed in his house last year, Wilkinson is able to track to within a few minutes how much energy his hot water heater and other appliances are using and the price of his electricity, which is measured per kilowatt hours. The price can nearly double at different times of day due to changes in demand.

"Right now we're at $0.09 a kilowatt hour," said Wilkinson, "I've used 15 kilowatt hours today. Earlier... about 10 o'clock this morning, it was at about $0.05 a kilowatt hour, but it's jumped up quite a bit because we're kind of in the whole swing of the business day." He can also monitor all this information from a website, where he can switch the electrical supply to specific devices in his home on and off from anywhere he has internet access.

This lets him turn off certain devices that require a lot of electricity, such as his water heater, during the day when the cost of electricity is high and then turn them back on at night or early in the morning when the price is lower.

Thomas said that some homeowners involved in the project have seen up to 15 percent savings on their electricity bills.

Wilkinson says he thinks the average person could save around $10 a month by taking full advantage of the smart grid technology.

He added that the project is probably not for everybody; while he doesn't find monitoring his electricity usage a hassle at all, he said that many people would still probably rather simply pay their bill each month and not worry about tracking or adjusting their electrical usage.

Looking around Wilkinson's house, a beautiful, recently remodeled older home with interior wood finishing, big windows and a antique wood stove, you really don't notice anything that would indicate he is participating in a cutting-edge energy experiment.

"There's a lot more to it than just what you see in the house," Wilkinson said, "It requires the whole utility system." For the project to work, there has to be near instantaneous digital communication of energy prices and usage between all the players involved. For Northwestern, this means connecting the smart grid devices in Wilkinson and others' homes to project partners in Colorado and Washington, something that took the creation of new software and a slew of innovative smart grid devices and monitoring systems.

"All of those devices have to be integrated," Thomas said. "It is a daunting technical challenge." The reason the project is even possible is because of the convergence of digital radio and digital computing, Thomas said.

Whether or not NorthWestern implements more widespread smart grid technology in the future will depend on the outcome of the analysis phase of the project, which will start next year, Thomas said.

One concern is whether people will use the technology if it is put in their homes.

When looking for people to participate in the pilot project, Thomas said NorthWestern had to send out 6,000 mailers inviting people join the experiment -- which they could do free of charge -- before the company hit the target 200 participants.

Another question that has to be answered is whether the technology will truly help NorthWestern and other energy companies operate more efficiently.

Smart grid technology will be put in place permanently at the speed of value, Thomas said.

___ (c)2013 the Independent Record (Helena, Mont.) Visit the Independent Record (Helena, Mont.) at www.helenair.com Distributed by MCT Information Services

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