November 4, 2012 in Business, City

Update of power grid in Inland Northwest has begun

Pullman at center of project aimed at savings, efficiency
Kaitlin Gillespie Murrow News Service
 

With the push of a button on their smartphones, Inland Northwest residents will soon have a way to adjust their thermostats and their electric bills.

In Pullman, a $38 million demonstration project will upgrade the aging power grid, saving energy and providing Avista customers with several new features intended to increase communication between customers and the power company.

The grid represents the “merger of the Internet with the electric grid,” said Anne Haas, spokeswoman for the PNW Smart Grid Demonstration Project.

 The Pullman project is half funded by federal stimulus money from the U.S. Department of Energy; the rest comes from Avista. It’s the first part of an overarching $178 million Smart Grid Demonstration Project in the Pacific Northwest, which is also backed by federal stimulus funds and includes 11 regional utility companies. The project will include updates to the Spokane and Seattle grids.

 Avista spokeswoman Laurine Jue said this is only the beginning for Smart Grid projects. Upgrading grids will be a costly process, requiring billions of dollars, she said. A total of $4.5 billion of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was set aside for upgrading inefficient power grids.

 “They’re a hundred years old,” Jue said about current power grid technology. “They’ve really just stayed the same way as they were when Thomas Edison worked back in his day, so a century ago. It’s really time for us to upgrade it.”

Those upgrades will allow customers to report and measure their power use more accurately, allow power companies to respond more quickly to outages, and transmit energy more efficiently throughout the lines. New smart thermostats will allow customers to control their thermostats remotely, either online or from their smartphone.

Since the project began in 2010, about 13,000 customers in Pullman and Albion, Wash., have had advanced meters installed in their home, providing customers with more information about their energy use. 

Avista is also completing the process of installing smart thermostats in customers’ homes for trial periods, a process that will be completed Nov. 15, Jue said.  About 35 have already been installed.

 WSU associate professor Carl Hauser is among those who had a thermostat installed in his home. Hauser, a faculty member with the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, said he has not seen any major changes in his energy use yet but expects that to change when the weather becomes colder.

“As someone who’s curious about the way these things work, I wanted to contribute to these studies,” he said.

Hauser can use his cellphone to increase or decrease his thermostat remotely.

 Washington State University also will see energy savings as a result of the project. The university has received $4.2 million to upgrade its own power grids as a part of the Smart Grid Demonstration Project, said Terry Ryan, director of energy management at WSU. About $2.6 million comes from DOE funding, as well as grants from the Washington state Department of Commerce.

The university has started installing smart meters in buildings, allowing staff members to take measurements on energy use and determine efficiency problems remotely. The university will see about $150,000 a year in savings once the installation is complete, Ryan said, about a 1.3 percent savings.

The real savings come when the university no longer has to send electricians out once a month to take the readings manually.

 “It becomes a resource savings,” Ryan said. “We can use those people on more critical work.”

To learn more about participating in the smart thermostat project, visit www.avistautilities.com/smart-tstat.

The Murrow News Service provides local, regional and statewide stories reported and written by journalism students at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University.


There are six comments on this story. Click here to view comments >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email