Information technology to create more efficient power grid

Published 11 January 2008

Creating a smarter grid through information technology could save $80 billion over 20 years nationally by offsetting costs of building new electric infrastructure; 300 Pacific Northwest volunteers take part in smart-appliance trial

Information is power (or, as is the case here, a power saver). The Pacific Northwest GridWise Demonstration projects aim to do just that. The project is a regional initiative to test and speed adoption of new smart grid technologies that can make the power grid more resilient and efficient. Through the GridWise Demonstration projects, PNNL researchers hope to gain insight into energy consumers’ behavior while testing new technologies designed to bring the electric transmission system into the information age. About 300 volunteers on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, in Yakima and in Gresham, Oregon, will test equipment which is expected to make the grid more reliable, while offsetting huge investments in new transmission and distribution equipment. A new combination of devices, software, and advanced analytical tools will give homeowners more information about their energy use and cost, and researchers want to know if this will modify these consumers’ behavior.

Approximately 200 homes will receive real-time price information through a broadband Internet connection and automated equipment which will adjust energy use based on price. In addition, some customers will have computer chips embedded in their dryers and water heaters that can sense when the power transmission system is under stress and automatically turn off certain functions briefly until the grid can be stabilized by power operators. The year-long study is part of the Pacific Northwest GridWise Demonstration, a project funded primarily by the Department of Energy (DOE). Northwest utilities, appliance manufacturers, and technology companies also are supporting this effort to demonstrate the devices and assess the resulting consumer response. In the pricing study, automated controls will adjust appliances and thermostats based on predetermined instructions from homeowners. The participating volunteers can choose to curtail or reduce energy use when prices are higher. At any point, homeowners have the ability to override even their preprogrammed preferences to achieve maximum comfort and convenience.

Currently, most utilities charge a flat rate per kilowatt hour to homeowners, regardless of the wholesale cost of power or the cost of transmission and distribution. Rob Pratt, who leads PNNL’s internal investment in the Energy Systems Transformation Initiative, and other researchers will analyze how customers react to the real cost of delivering energy to their homes through the use of simulated electric bills and pretend money in a mock account that eventually will be converted into cash they get to keep. If homeowners choose to reduce electric consumption at times of higher prices, the pretend money they save becomes real as they are issued a check from the GridWise program each quarter. Price conscious participants are expected to earn about $150 during the year and nobody will lose money during the experiment. The communications, computer, and control technologies provided by IBM, Invensys Controls, and others can help customers become an integral part of power grid operations on a daily basis — and especially in times of extreme stress on the electrical distribution system.

In the portion of the demonstration focused on the smart appliance technology, a computer chip developed by PNNL is being installed in 150 Sears Kenmore dryers produced by Whirlpool Corporation. The Grid Friendly Appliance Controller chip could help prevent widespread power outages by turning off certain parts of an appliance when it senses instability in the grid — something that happens about once a day on average. Shutting down the heating element for a few minutes, while the drum continues to tumble, would likely go unnoticed by the homeowner but drastically reduces power demand within the home. Multiplied on a large scale, this instant reduction in energy load could serve as a shock absorber for the grid, as it would give grid operators time to bring new power generation resources on-line to stabilize the grid