Graph out a utility’s energy sales and you see the rhythms of its customers’ daily lives. In winter months, energy demand spikes in the morning, when people are up cooking breakfast and taking showers. Then it spikes again in the evening when they’re home watching TV, doing laundry and running heating systems. In the summer, it spikes late afternoon as air conditioning needs spike for residential cooling needs.
Having the capacity to meet those peak demands whenever they occur is core to a utility’s service reliability.
That’s why energy conservation is one of the most powerful tools utilities have. Energy conservation programs — giving away high-efficiency light bulbs, offering customers incentives to insulate their homes, buy efficient appliances and educating about their energy use — helps lower demand spikes and keeps long-term demand growth at bay, even while the community and the local economy continue to grow.
Without the energy conservation programs Northwest utilities, including Clark Public Utilities, have operated for the last 40 years, customers would likely consume much more power than they currently do. That higher demand would’ve required the construction of expensive utility lines and even power plants, the cost of which would have been passed onto customers.
But even with all that conservation, energy demand peaks continue to rise. Plus, a growing number of intermittent energy resources like solar and wind are being incorporated into the power supply. Those systems produce energy in varying amounts at different times of the year and day.
Today, to reduce peak demands and match energy consumption with production, utilities around the country are incentivizing customers to think not just about how much energy they use, but when they use it. Encouraging customers to use high-demand appliances at different periods of the day, spreads the demand overtime, and reduces the peak loads that put pressure on utility infrastructure and drive up energy costs, which are often passed onto consumers.
“Setting rates based on time of use is a popular solution for many utilities to better manage when their customers consume electricity,” said Energy Resources Programs Manager Matt Babbitts. “It’s a powerful tool for power companies to spread out the demand while offering customers a new opportunity to lower their utility bill.”
For instance, that could mean offering customers a lower rate if they consume during off-peak hours, like running the dryer overnight or charging an electric vehicle in midafternoon instead of right after work.
Time-of-use rates and incentive programs can only be implemented after utilities invest in advanced metering infrastructure, or AMI. AMI is an integrated system of communications networks, data management systems and, crucially, smart meters that allow two-way communication between the company and the customer—rather than ones that simply track a customer’s consumption.
Smart meters can help utilities locate power outages faster, and lower energy procurement costs. They can help customers better track and reduce their energy consumption and lower their utility bills.
AMI and smart meters have been around for years. Roughly 70 percent of utility customers across America are connected to a smart meter.
Clark Public Utilities doesn’t currently operate an AMI network, have smart meters or offer time-of-use rates. But the utility is in the early stages of exploring a transition to AMI in the years ahead. Utility staff have begun investigating the technology and the Board of Commissioners recently set aside surplus funds to prepare for the transition.
When the utility does decide to transition to AMI and smart meters, each step of the process will be brought before the Board of Commissioners for their consideration.
Energy Adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to email@example.com or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98668.