An Electrical Experiment

Posted on February 26, 2009 by ELCA World Hunger

A few months ago, I read Hot, Flat, and Crowded by Thomas Friedman. About halfway through the book, he describes what life will be like in the energy-efficient future. He tells about how your house has a Smart Black Box (SBB) that manages all of your home’s energy usage – lighting, temperature, appliances, TV, etc. The SBB can tell you how much energy each of your appliances uses, and each appliance can be programmed to run when you’d like. Many people choose to have them run whenever electricity is the cheapest – usually nights and weekends. This is possible because in the future, utility companies offer different rates and plans that correspond with demand and load. So it’s possible to keep your costs down by using you washing machine when demand for electricity is lower, and shutting them down when it’s higher. You win in cost, the utility companies win by spreading out demand and load, the environment wins because fewer power plants are needed and renewable energy sources can play a bigger role.

Imagine my surprise when I received an offer in the mail last week from my electric company offering me this service! I had no idea the future was so close!

Now, I’ve only summarized a small part of what Friedman describes in his book, and my electric company has offered me only part of my summary. But it was close enough to get my attention! For a small monthly fee, they will install a meter that records our hourly electricity usage. They will also publish online how much electricity costs each hour of the day. And while we can’t program our appliances to run at certain times, we can look at the rates and choose to run the washing machine when electricity is cheaper. If you sign up, you have to stay in the program for a year.

My husband and I looked at each other and said, “Should we do it?” Philosophically, we are both in favor, but I realized as we deliberated that the future is not yet here. There’s just not enough information. Our electric company can’t tell us anything about our various appliances’ current energy usage, so how big a difference will shifting our dishwashing hours make? Are we going to save a couple of cents? Several dollars? Will we save enough to make up for the monthly cost of the new, hourly meter? Will we end up paying more than we do now when, in August, the air conditioner runs pretty constantly and we’re stuck with high-demand rates during the day? Is this actually a stupid financial decision? Even though we favor the concept, we hesitated.

But in the end, we decided to try it. I like Friedman’s vision, and someone has to be an early-adopter on the path to the energy-efficient future. Why not us? If we’re lucky, it will save us money, too. So we mailed in the enrollment form. I’ll keep you posted.

-Nancy Michaelis
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