A volunteer group of Pullman Avista customers saw their power consumption decline by 9.3 percent after they were given high-tech thermostats.
The devices were distributed as part of a smart grid project where Avista deployed a number of cutting-edge technologies and gathered data to see if their performance merited putting them into broader use.
Overall, the upgrades are saving 43,000 megawatt hours per year in Pullman and Spokane, not counting the conservation by the Pullman thermostat users.
“We exceeded our goal,” said Curtis Kirkeby, an engineer at Avista. “We did our normal utility business case. It met that criteria.”
Kirkeby declined to share dollars saved versus those that were spent, but he said that generally Avista looks at the rate of return on investments over 20 years.
And in this instance, Avista didn’t assign a value to the 2.5 million customer outage minutes that were avoided from August of 2012 through September of 2016. That was because the benefit came through equipment that had other advantages, such as reducing consumption.
The research completed by Avista was one part of the Pacific Northwest Smart Grid Demonstration Project. A federal grant of $178 million was split among 11 utilities in Idaho, Washington, Montana, Oregon and Wyoming.
Each grant recipient tested emerging technologies to see how well they made strides in conservation and reliability at a reasonable price. The data was documented and shared nationally.
Elements of the smart grid that Avista introduced have been put into broader use and as the utility moves forward, it will consider what it learned anytime it makes a major decision about infrastructure, Kirkeby said.
In the case of the thermostats which are connected to wireless internet, Avista is encouraging residential customers anywhere in its Idaho and Washington territory to buy them by offering rebates of as much as $100. The retail price runs anywhere from $100 to $300 and installation costs vary.
The thermostats allowed 75 Pullman families during the project to adjust the temperatures in their homes using smartphones, which could be done even if they weren’t on the premises.
They also provided information about daily usage patterns and enabled users to see what their estimated monthly bill would be at any time.
Almost as surprising was what happened when Avista activated another feature of the thermostats, one that allowed the utility to adjust the temperature in private residences up or down by two degrees on days where extreme hot or cold taxed the utility’s power resources.
Avista had high acceptance from the participants – who had the option of rejecting the thermostat changes – but the utility found other smart grid measures showed more promise.
One is invisible to customers. Voltage in wall outlets was diminished by two volts, something that was possible because the improvements Avista made ensured a constant flow of power in the lower range without diminishing the performance of appliances like toasters. That technology also helped prevent outages.
Another strategy that succeeded involved closer cooperation with Washington State University. Avista now has a protocol where it can request power from the school’s generating facilities, which are powered with natural gas and diesel.
It can also have the school reduce its demand through minor changes in how it operates its heating and cooling system for classrooms, conference rooms, offices and hallways, but not more sensitive areas such as laboratories or dormitories.
Even though the smart grid project is technically over, Avista continues to examine innovations, Kirkeby said.
“Everything is on a road map where we have customers gain value from what we do and participate in what we do.”
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