Riding Herd on the Energy Hogs
A new London Hydro initiative taps smart meters and third-party devices and software to give homeowners a detailed breakdown of how much energy their appliances are using in real time.
By Robert Way, Special to The Free Press
Like a child prodigy stuck in an un-inspiring classroom, that shiny new digital smart meter installed in your home five years ago likely isn’t working to its full potential.
The meters that monitor household electricity consumption by the hour, and were supposed to lead to energy bill savings through better consumer cost awareness, have largely been underutilized since their inception 10 years ago. However, that’s potentially about to change with new technology — both hardware and third-party software applications — on the horizon for consumers.
Designed to make better sense of your smart meter’s wealth of recorded data, the technology is just one small part of London Hydro’s Green Button conservation initiative that collects daily household energy usage and makes it available for analysis in new third-party digital thermostats and energy management software applications coming on the market.
“Green Button is all about giving power to the people,” says Nancy Hutton, director of public relations and corporate communications for London Hydro. “Smart meters shouldn’t be about penalizing customers with higher electricity rates. We can’t control the energy costs set by the province, but we can help people manage how they use it. We are trying to put them in the driver’s seat.”
London Hydro wants to provide customers with enough information to manage their energy consumption in a way that fits their lifestyle, by helping them understand how and when to better use their appliances economically. Much like the early days of the Blue Box recycling program, the goal is to have consumers become more aware of their consumption habits, and gradually educate them to become energy smart.
In a typical London home, that may mean shifting high power usage activities such as running hot tubs, pool pumps, air conditioning, clothes drying, or non-essential cooking activities to off-peak hours when they will be much less expensive and place a lower demand on the province’s power grid.
From May 1 to Oct. 31, electricity rates fluctuate throughout the weekday from a low of eight cents to more than 16 cents per kilowatt hour. (A kilowatt hour is recorded every time your home consumes 1,000 watts of electricity; think of a 100-watt light bulb burning for 10 hours.)
Smart meters keep track of it all. Baking a cake or drying a load of laundry between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. on a weekday uses the same amount of electricity as any other time of day. But it will cost you a lot more, especially if you could delay the activity until after 7 p.m., or do it on the weekend, without having any detrimental effect on your lifestyle.
There are already eight such new applications — five residential, three commercial — available for use with customers’ personal computers and smart phones. Since the beginning of the year, the London utility also has initiated a pilot project with approximately 300 homes to test drive two different energy monitoring devices and software programs capable of further analyzing smart meter data. An additional 100 homes, including apartments, are being added as London Hydro prepares to expand its new Green Button initiative website increasing the number of available energy-monitoring applications to more than 10.
One such early application being tested in the London pilot project is in partnership with Bidgely, a California-based company that bills itself as “your personal energy adviser.” Though customers can already monitor their hourly consumption through enrolling in “My London Hydro” on the utility’s website, Bidgely’s software takes it one step further by tracking energy usage down to the minute, and by appliance category (refrigeration, cooling, heating). It then graphically displays it in “real time” charts, and graphs on its website or your smart phone.
Once registered with Green Button and Bidgely, the consumer can see not only their home’s current and historical consumption, but also get a breakdown of which appliances are the heaviest users and their corresponding costs.
Knowing where your energy dollar is being wasted can result in unexpected savings. The energy website identifies in dollars and cents what portion of the household’s electrical load is going to devices that are “always on,” usually electronics such as TVs, PVRs, power rechargers, computers, and lighting. The cost benefit from putting timers on those devices, or unplugging them when not in use, becomes immediately visible in Bidgely’s “real time” energy home page readout.
Likewise, knowing what that extra refrigerator or space heater in the basement is really costing on your electricity bill, can be an eye opener.
Alarms can also be set within the software to notify you when a category such as cooling or heating exceeds an hourly level pre-determined by the consumer. Receiving an alarm or notification on your smart phone may be an indication the kitchen oven was accidentally left on, or a sump pump is working too hard, which could mean potential basement flooding. Or perhaps someone just went out and left too many lights on.
Another piece of hardware being tested in the London pilot project is a new smart thermostat from Energate, an Ottawa-based company. Besides being a typical setback thermostat, this thermostat is connected wirelessly to your home’s smart meter to track real-time consumption by the minute, displaying it on the screen in both kilowatt hours and actual cost per hour.
It comes with an optional remote control application that, when installed on the customer’s smart phone, allows them to dial down or dial up their home’s temperature. In combination with a pre-set schedule, you can then conveniently dial in specific temperatures that match time of use (TOU) energy rates to make sure you aren’t heating or cooling your house excessively during high-cost hours or times when no one is home.
Perhaps the thermostat’s most visible indicator of high energy consumption and its corresponding cost, however, is its bright LED yellow and orange lights that glow during mid-peak and high-peak hours, alerting the customer to be mindful that whatever they are running in their house is more expensive than during low-peak times — 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. — when the device’s LEDs are not lit.
A quick check of the thermostat’s display screen showing the current higher hourly cost reinforces the “Do you really need to do this now?” underlying message: think smart.
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ON THE WEB
London pilot project inquiries: mygreenbutton.ca
Bidgely energy monitoring: bidgely.com
Energate smart thermostat: energateinc.com/our-products/energate-foundation/
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My London Hydro home energy monitoring website: londonhydro.com
Number of subscribers: 61,345
Number actively monitoring home energy use: 11,400 (monthly average)
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Time of use (TOU) energy rates of London Hydro
On-peak (weekdays 7 a.m.-11 a.m. and 5 p.m.-7 p.m.): 17.5 cents/kwh
Mid-peak (weekdays 11 a.m.-5 p.m.): 12.8 cents/kwh
Off-Peak (weekdays 7 p.m.–7 a.m.; weekends; statutory holidays) : 8.3 cents/kwh
Kilowatt hour (kwh) is 1,000 watts of electricity, for example burning a 100-watt light bulb for 10 hours)
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4.8 million smart meters installed across province 2004-2014
Cost: $2B, twice original estimate
Smart meter charge included in typical residential bill: 79 cents a month.
Benefit: “Modest impact”. (Estimated residential energy demand reduction during on-peak period: only 3%)
Source: Ontario’s Smart Metering Initiative — Ontario Auditor General’s Report, 2014