Power Control For D.C. Houses

By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 19, 2006

Pepco Holdings Inc. is planning to install "smart meters" in 2,250 District homes as part of a $2 million pilot project to give Pepco more information about residential electricity usage and give homeowners greater ability to manage power consumption and curb monthly bills.

"As energy prices go up, customers want more control over their electric bills," said Michael J. Sullivan, Pepco's vice president of customer care. "How can they get that control? One way is to involve them in direct control over their electrical appliances."

The meters will measure customers' electricity use at 15-minute intervals and transmit the data to Pepco through a wireless communications link. Customers will get more detailed bills.

About half the residences in the program will also get "smart thermostats" that will provide customers with information about real-time electricity prices and running usage so they can adjust air conditioning or the use of other appliances.

The price of electricity can vary widely depending on time of day and season. Summer rates at peak hours are 64 cents a kilowatt-hour; rates during non-peak hours are 6.81 cents.

Pepco would also have the ability to adjust the thermostats to prevent demand from overloading the transmission system. There are 15 "critical peak" days during the summer and three during the winter. Customers would be able to override Pepco's adjustments.

Pepco said it will select the homes for the pilot project at random in all eight wards of the city and will install the new meters at no charge.

The utility will experiment with different approaches to the smart meters. One will give households information a day ahead about hourly pricing in the wholesale market for the regional power grid. Another will focus on giving customers advance information about four peak hours on "critical peak" days either through the smart thermostats or by automated phone messages. A third will offer customers rebates for reducing consumption during those peak hours.

Peak electricity is more expensive because utilities have to turn to generating plants that can be fired up quickly, and they tend to rely on more expensive fuels such as oil and natural gas.

Phil Franklin, director of business development at Advanced Metering Data Systems LLC, the maker of the meter communications system, said that the devices have been installed in 50,000 homes in Birmingham, Ala., and that there are pilot projects in Gulfport, Miss.; Charlotte; New Orleans; Covington, La.; Jasper, Ga.; and two towns in Ontario.

Franklin said the meters' wireless communication capability will enable them to tell central utility offices when power fails at individual houses. "The utility knows immediately when the power's out and doesn't have to rely on the customer calling in," Franklin said. "It allows the utility to know about the problem faster and therefore restore the power faster."

The new meters also mean that utilities would not have to send people out to read meters. Pepco employs 100 people to do that in the District.

The experiment is being run by the Smart Meter Pilot Program Inc., a nonprofit company comprising Pepco, the District's Office of the People's Counsel and Consumer Utility Board, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1900 and the D.C. Public Service Commission. The program will be funded by Pepco.

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