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Xcel “Smart Meters” in Boulder: More Information for Better Consumer Choices?

Complete Colorado points to an article in the Daily Camera on Xcel’s efforts to install “smart grid” technology in (where else?) Boulder.

I definitely don’t like the idea of the power company (or envirokook do-gooders in the local government) having the authority to turn down my air conditioning or water heater whenever they find it “necessary”, but there are elements to the “smart grid” technology that I do find interesting, and possibly appealing.

Xcel has spent the last year installing more than 100 miles’ worth of fiber-optic cable in Boulder. That cable now carries vital information about the grid’s performance to Xcel. The company is also asking 10,000 volunteers to install “smart meters” in their homes that will allow them to get nearly real-time information about their electricity use.

The new grid technology could let customers give Xcel the authority to turn down the power to their air conditioners or other energy-hog appliances to help save power during peak-use periods. It could also let customers power-up their appliances when the data shows that more energy is being produced by alternative sources like solar and wind power…

Xcel will also soon be asking regulators for the right to charge consumers for electricity based on demand, rather than a flat price. If their efforts succeed, customers will be able to decide, for example, to turn on the dryer later at night, when electricity is cheaper. {emphasis mine}

That makes a lot of sense, in principle at least.  (More info on the smart meters here.)   If the new meters could actually provide realtime usage and pricing information via household display, it’s easy to see how one can save a few bucks simply by choosing to delay certain energy-hungry activities for a short while.   And if the meters could show real-time price trends over several days or several weeks, consumers could establish new money-saving (and, yes, energy-conserving) habits based on this information. 

Note that this sort of demand scheduling is not new – the company I worked for in college scheduled the startup of its heavy machinery for early in the morning, before the daily power demand picked up, in order to qualify for reduced rates from the power company.   What’s new is the ability to plan such things on the fly, based on real-time information.

But of course, this being Boulder, someone has to drag class envy into it.  Giving consumers more information on which to base voluntary money-saving choices isn’t good enough: poor consumers need to be given money to adopt the glamorous, expensive, and dubiously-effective green-preening luxuries energy technologies that the wascally wealthy can buy with their pocket change:

Boulder City Councilwoman Angelique Espinoza, one of those in the audience, said the energy-saving opportunities Floyd described sound exciting. But, she said, she wants to know what efforts will be made to help people without money buy their own solar panels, smart-meters, or plug-in hybrid vehicles.

“What it sounds like is that the person who has the most money to invest to control their consumption saves the most money,” she said. “But that’s not the person who needs to save the most money.”

Floyd said he doesn’t necessarily agree with that assessment. Much of the energy-saving technology is cheap, he said — and it makes sense to try to distribute it as widely as possibly.

“We want it to be equally beneficial, or even more beneficial, to people who are struggling to make ends meet,” he said.

That’s our Boulder.

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