Every day, 8 a.m. sharp, an e-mail arrives in Ed Cox's in-box and opens a window to the nation's energy future.
The e-mail reveals Cox's daily household electricity usage for each of the past 15 days.
By studying the day-by-day bar graphs, the retired physician realized that his Chapel Hill home was drawing power on days when no one was in. Cox eventually figured out that his old well pump, which runs on electric power, was running round-the-clock instead of shutting off when not in use.
"My best estimate is that we paid $1,700 for wasted electricity over a two-year period," Cox said. "And it would have gone on unnoticed."
Cox's experience highlights one of the potential benefits of the "smart grid" system that will be deployed throughout this country over the next decade. The smart grid concept describes the computerized digital energy network that will eventually replace the nation's aging and inefficient electro-mechanical power grid.
Today Cox enjoys a benefit available to only a sliver of residents in this state.
He gets his electricity from the Piedmont Electric Membership Corp., a rural cooperative that is too small to operate its own power plant and instead buys electricity from the state's two dominant power companies, Duke Energy and Progress Energy. The co-op, based in Hillsborough, has provided all of its 31,000 customers with a "smart meter" -- the two-way wireless communication technology that forms the backbone of the touted smart grid system.
Piedmont EMC, with just 100 employees, can boast having the smartest grid in the state, and one of the most advanced in the nation. The co-op's officials describe the technological shift that's about to sweep through the power industry as leapfrogging from a rotary-dial phone directly to a BlackBerry.
"It's a very exciting time," said Susan Cashion, Piedmont EMC's manager of key accounts. "It's the perfect time for this because of the economy and the savings that are there."
Raleigh-based Progress and Charlotte-based Duke are installing and testing advanced meters on a limited and experimental basis. Standard utility meters, in place for most customers in the state, can't provide daily breakdowns and they aren't equipped to receive instructions.
Utility meters are a long-term investment in durable hardware that typically lasts for several decades. Progress spent $140 million replacing 2.7 million analog meters in the Carolinas and Florida in 2005 and 2006. Progress and Duke are evaluating technology that will convert their recently installed digital meters into advanced smart meters without having to replace all the meters again.
"Having just in the last couple of years changed out about all our meters, to install all new meters again and charge our customers - we'd have to think hard about that," said Progress CEO Bill Johnson. "From all that the customers ask of us, that's not on top of the list. Where we are right now, the benefit to the customers does not outweigh the cost."
Piedmont EMC had also been planning to replace its older, mechanical meters, but the co-op waited until the price of smart meters came down. Customers now can receive not only daily energy updates but they also can check past daily usage over many months. The e-mail notification option lets family members in North Carolina - or anywhere in the country - track unusual energy use patterns.
Additionally, Piedmont EMC customers can select a pre-pay option as a budget management tool. This option lets all the co-op's customers buy electricity in advance in small amounts they can afford, by paying every week or even every few days. Some customers on the system make small payments every day.
These services, available to Piedmont EMC customers since the summer, are only the initial benefits of a comprehensive smart grid system being developed nationwide.
In the future, customers will be able to remotely program thermostats - over the Internet or with a wireless phone - that will display bill estimates for every degree setting. Smart meters will instantly notify utility companies of power outages by pinpointing the affected homes. They will spit out real-time energy-use data, instead of e-mailing yesterday's stats.
And power companies will offer special rates and timers for recharging electric cars during off-peak hours when the grid is awash in cheap, surplus electricity.
Major appliance makers are developing refrigerators, water heaters and air conditioners with embedded chips that will let homeowners or power companies remotely override temperature settings and briefly toggle off power.
"We're at stage one of something that's really big," said Ted Schultz, Duke's vice president of energy efficiency and smart grid strategy.
But even Schultz acknowledges that the smart grid is enjoying a honeymoon in which hype outstrips reality. Duke, with electricity customers in five states, has done focus groups in the Midwest and is testing smart meters at 100 homes in the Charlotte area.
The company's research has found that most customers consider a daily e-mail from their power company a distraction, not a benefit.
"Customers have told us they've got enough things to worry about," Schultz said. "They're not interested in having another thing added to their list."
Schultz said a smart grid could shave off two months' cost from annual power bills by making millions of imperceptible adjustments to appliances across the state, and also by shifting more energy use to cheaper, off-peak hours. But most people will want the utility to do the work.
At Piedmont EMC, for example, in the past nine months, fewer than 1,000 customers have signed up for the daily e-mail notices, or about 3 percent of the company's customers.
"This is the brand-new shiny toy for the utility industry," said Charlie Acquard, executive director of the National Association of State Utility Consumer Advocates in Maryland. "How are people going to respond? Is it going to benefit customers?"
Advocates say that using energy-management technology will become second-nature to a generation schooled on the iPhone and Wii. And there's no question that smart grids are coming. Last fall the Obama administration announced $3.4 billion in stimulus money to support smart grid development.
Progress and Duke each received the maximum $200 million, and Progress will use some of the money to install 80,000 smart meters for commercial customers.
Piedmont EMC's first
For several years at least, Piedmont EMC customers will likely be the first in this state to experience new features available or planned by other utilities around the country. Rural co-ops in North Carolina are owned by their customers, and don't have to answer to Wall Street investors about how they spend their money.
Out of the 26 rural co-ops in the state that serve nearly 1million customers, at least 18 co-ops in addition to Piedmont EMC are in the process of installing or planning smart meters, according to the N.C. Association of Electric Cooperatives in Raleigh.
In the Triangle, the co-ops include the Wake EMC, which serves Durham, Wake and Johnston counties, and Central EMC, which serves Chatham and Harnett counties.
In other parts of the country, smart grids are mandated by state governments. States such as Colorado, Texas, California and Arizona are well on the way to providing smart grid features to customers.
The cost of installing these automated systems will be paid for by the systemwide energy savings, said Brian Seal, senior project manager at Electric Power Research Institute, an industry group financed by power companies.
Piedmont EMC's meters cost $3.2 million to install, about $100 per meter. The company says the new meters will pay for themselves over eight years from the savings realized by eliminating five meter readers who used to cover the co-op's six-county region to read every meter every month. Now the monthly data are transmitted over power lines.
Vivian Painter, a Piedmont EMC customer who lives in Person County, said if the daily e-mails had been available five years ago, she'd likely have taken less time to catch a leaky water heater under her bathroom sink.
Even so, she's sure that receiving the daily notices cuts her energy costs simply by reminding her every day, instead of once a month, how much electricity she uses.
"It's ridiculous how much we pay for our power bill," she said.
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