Utility websites plug users into savings

April 29, 2012 by  
Filed under Solar Energy Tips

Dave Chase checked his home computer on a recent morning and was shocked to see that his electricity use had shot from 2 kilowatts to more than 6 kilowatts at 4 a.m., when the family was sleeping.

“I started researching what could be going on at that time of morning and figured out it was our water heater,” said Chase, 57, a Wilton resident with an all-electric house. “Turns out, water heaters click on at random times, even when no one is using hot water.”

Chase bought a timer for the water heater, allowing him to shut it off at night, and is now enjoying watching his hourly energy consumption drop.

He’s one of the new breed of energy users, armed with information from recently launched utility websites that allow consumers to track electricity and gas consumption monthly, daily, even hourly. An early application of “smart” meters, the websites can also be used to get conservation tips, analyze energy use trends, pay bills, and start and stop service remotely.

“My wife says I’m hooked on it,” Chase said of his fascination for following his energy use on the Sacramento Municipal Utilities District website, www.smud.org.

Both SMUD and Pacific Gas and Electric Co. are upgrading to smart meters in the greater Sacramento region and now offer websites for online tracking and account management.

The smart meters are read remotely, so that meter readers don’t have to enter customers’ properties, and fewer trucks are on the road, said Chris Capra, a spokesman for SMUD.

Capra said SMUD has installed 610,000 smart meters from late 2009 to this quarter of 2012. The project cost of $140 million covers the meters, the network that reads them and the installation, with $127.5 million coming from a federal energy grant.

About 400,000 SMUD customers are currently eligible to participate in the online program, and so far, more than 22,000 are registered to use it, Capra said.

PGE’s SmartMeters allow customers to access energy use online at www.pge.com/myenergy, and get energy alerts by email, text or phone call when electric use is moving toward a higher-priced tier.

PGE just launched a Facebook page allowing customers to share and compare energy use with friends across the nation using a new “social energy application.”

And PGE announced in January it’s one of the sponsors of a national competition to develop third-party applications for saving energy and money. The “Green Button” program allows PGE customers to download energy data for use by third-party application designers.

Greg Snapper, spokesperson for PGE, said the utility serves 15 million people in Northern and Central California, and 9 million of those have upgraded to SmartMeters.

“The benefits of online registration are analysis tools, so you can discover energy use trends,” Snapper said. He said customers can see electrical use by the hour, and gas use daily.

“Imagine how powerful that is for customers,” Snapper said. “In the old days, customers got an energy statement every 30 days, but now they’re getting real insight into how and where you’re using energy.”

Erik Krause, project development manager for SMUD’s Smart Grid program, said commercial customers can use online tracking to see use every 15 minutes. There’s also a “weather overlay,” allowing consumers to see the temperatures on particular days to explain usage patterns.

Krause said the website also has a home energy calculator, allowing customers to plug in information about the household and certain appliances to paint a picture of energy use.

Chase is using his SMUD online program for real savings. Since he started using the online tracking service about a month ago, he figured out that about a fifth of his energy use is in “phantom loads,” or electricity being consumed by appliances and electronics that are plugged in but not being used.

He’s working on cutting that in half by placing some on power strips and turning them off at night, and attaching timers to certain appliances, such as TVs, DVD players and cable boxes.

Chase is also shopping for a new, more efficient pool pump and a new heating and air conditioning unit and plans to install solar water heating panels. He’s also converting all his light bulbs to LED. He’s using tax rebates to cut down on capital outlay.

His goal is to cut energy use enough to stay in the tier 1 rate category, which is almost half the tier 2 rate. He plans to add solar energy panels to save even more on his bills.

He currently spends $4,600 to $4,700 a year on electric costs, but predicts he can knock that down to $1,500 a year using the online tracking tools and conservation measures.

“Using the tools on the website, I think we can do it,” Chase said. “The message is, by studying what you’re doing and how you’re doing it, you can save big bucks on electricity. People can’t keep throwing money away, not in this economy.”

Barbara Hayes’ family in Davis had some fun with their online PGE management tool. She and her husband motivated their two teenage kids to cut energy use by giving them half the monthly savings.

Then in January, her household challenged her sister’s family in Petaluma to an electricity conservation competition, with a pizza dinner at stake.

“It was a fight to the finish,” said Hayes, president and chief executive officer of Sacramento Area Commerce and Trade Organization. “We were often sitting in the cold and dark in January, and we used our fireplace a lot. There were strategic decisions as to whether and when to do laundry. My sister’s family spent one evening under a blanket with their hats on. In the end, my sister won by a thin margin.”

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