A Northwest field test of smart-grid technologies has documented tremendous potential to run a grid that delivers power far more economically by controlling peak demand.

The Pacific Northwest GridWise Demonstration Project has just announced the results of their year-long test, which included two pieces:

  • On the Olympic Peninsula of Washington, 112 homes, three onsite generation units and municipal water pumps were equipped with automated systems that allowed them to adjust grid power demand in response to price signals.
  • Appliances embedded with microchips capable of automatically responding to grid power fluctuations were placed at 150 homes in Washington and Oregon.

The aim of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory-managed project was to document the ability of automated control systems to cut usage of the most costly power. Reducing demand can eliminate the need for peak power plants and delivery systems used only a relatively few hours of the year. Among the study’s findings:

  • Average power bill savings among customers who participated in the Olympic test were 10 percent, and peak load reductions 15 percent.
  • Power use reductions plus distributed generation reduced peak power distribution loads 50 percent for days at a time.
  • These technologies have potential to lower peak power prices plus save $70 billion over 20 years by avoiding the need to build peaking plants and wires.
  • If all appropriate appliances were equipped with the intelligence to respond to grid conditions, 20 percent of U.S. power demand could be adjusted, tremendously reducing the level of blackouts and brownouts.

BusinessWeek notes in its report on the tests that the smart grid “offers a huge business opportunity for the companies making sensors, control devices and software. IBM for one figures that the market for its software and other technology would be in the many millions of dollars, if the nation were to adopt the smart grid.”

One reason the Northwest was site for the test is that it already is a global smart-grid center. A number of companies based in the Northwest are already players in the game including Itron, Alerton, Microplanet, Schweitzer Labs, and Areva T&D. A 2003 report (PDF) found that Northwest companies then held $2 billion of a $15 billion global smart energy technology market.

The Olympic test provided customers with new electric meters, thermostats, and smart water heaters and dryers, as well as an Internet-based home gateway through which customers could set their own levels for comfort and cost savings.

“We’re talking about putting the power into the hands of the consumers, who can customize their energy use to save money and maximize comfort,” said PNNL GridWise Manager Rob Pratt. “They can check the financial implications of their decisions at any time, and adjust or override their settings whenever they choose.”

Besides economic benefits, demand response technologies also make for a cleaner grid. They reduce the need for peaker plant generation, generally the most polluting, as well as plants that must operate as a reserve for demand surges. They can also adjust demand to respond to fluctuations in production from renewable resources such as sun and wind. This is an alternative to back-up power plants now used to balance wind farms.

“Demand-response technologies can help accommodate the intermittent nature of renewable resources like wind power, making it more possible to effectively manage their integration into the power grid,” notes Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL).

PNNL based in Richland, Wash., is a national center for smart-grid research. It spawned GridWise, now a U.S. Department of Energy program aimed at accelerating the smart grid. On the Pacific Northwest demonstration PNNL teamed up with Bonneville Power Administration, which is also engaged in visionary efforts to test alternatives to traditional pole-and-wire power delivery. Utility partners were PacifiCorp, Portland General Electric, and Clallam PUD. Appliances were supplied by Whirlpool and software by IBM.

This post was originally published on Climate Solutions Journal.