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TMCNet:  Boulder rolls out real-time home energy monitoring pilot program [Daily Camera, Boulder, Colo. :: ]

[March 21, 2014]

Boulder rolls out real-time home energy monitoring pilot program [Daily Camera, Boulder, Colo. :: ]

(Daily Camera (Boulder, CO) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) March 21--Renaud des Rosiers tries to be conscientious about his energy use.

He and his wife, Beth, only run their dishwasher twice a week and use a clothesline when the weather is nice. They've replaced all their lighting, and they look for energy efficient options when they need new appliances, such as a double oven with a smaller top unit that takes less energy to heat.


Des Rosiers makes it a point of personal pride to keep his energy use below 400 kilowatt hours a month -- about half that of a typical household.

"For a family of five, I think that's pretty good," he said.

But new energy monitors installed in his home in Boulder's Kings Ridge neighborhood as part of a city pilot program already have revealed one oversight.

Like many families, the des Rosiers keep the small light below their microwave and above their stovetop on as a night light. When Renaud des Rosiers logged into the portal that gives him real-time energy use data for individual circuits in his house, he saw the microwave chugging along at 40 watts, even when it wasn't being used. That fixture was still fitted with an incandescent bulb.

Renaud des Rosiers turned off the light until he could find an LED bulb to replace it.

"I'm excited to eke out some additional savings," he said.

Boulder is partnering with Austin, Texas-based Pecan Street Inc. to install the monitoring systems in 50 homes. The monitors are unobtrusive -- invisible behind the circuit box in some homes, small boxes on appliances in others, where circuit box access was more challenging. A router sends the energy use data to home computers and to Pecan Street.

Pecan Street seeks to understand energy use in much more sophisticated ways to drive innovation in that sector. Experiments in Austin have involved testing different positioning for solar panels to get more power at peak times, the impact of electric vehicle charging on energy loads and the impact of differential electricity pricing.

Boulder officials hope the pilot program, which started with the first installations this month and will run for two years, will help homeowners find new energy savings and, more importantly, help the city refine its incentive programs to encourage homeowners to take new steps to conserve.

"We want a concrete way to measure the effectiveness of the programs that are in place and to design programs for the future," said Kara Mertz, Boulder's local environmental action manager.

If Boulder starts its own energy utility -- a step that seems increasingly likely now that the city has filed a notice of intent to acquire Xcel Energy's distribution system and a task force looking at possible alternatives to municipalization has disbanded -- the information gleaned from the pilot program also could help the city set the rate structure and incentive programs for the new utility, such as differential pricing to encourage people to use power at off-peak times.

Xcel Energy does not currently use differential pricing for residential customers.

Boulder: High interest in program Mertz said interest in the pilot program was high, and the city quickly got more volunteers than were needed. Boulder has three homes listed as alternates in case there are technical problems with the installations.

So far, installation has been going slower than expected, as many older homes and homes with additions have idiosyncratic wiring and unlabeled circuit breakers. By the end of this week, city officials hoped to have about a dozen systems installed, with the rest expected by the end of April.

The city looked for participants in Newlands, an older, well-organized neighborhood in northwest Boulder, and Kings Ridge and Noble Park, newer subdivisions north of Valmont Road and east of Foothills Parkway that are less well-organized.

They wanted a range of home sizes and household size, as well as homes with and without solar panels and electric vehicles, and with and without additions.

The participating homes include 28 with additions or remodels, nine with solar panels and three with plug-in hybrid vehicles.

There are 33 children in the participating homes. There are 18 households of three or more people, and seven households consisting of a single adult.

The median home size is 2,100 square feet in Kings Ridge/Noble Park and 2,550 square feet in Newlands. The median year of construction was 1991 in Kings Ridge/Noble Park and 1953 in Newlands.

There also are five mobile homes in the pilot program. Mertz said the city is particularly interested in knowing how much energy savings can be realized through habit changes in those homes, since doing structural upgrades are much less practical in manufactured housing.

Mertz said the applicants gave a variety of reasons for wanting to participate, from a desire to contribute to the advancement of new energy technology to wanting to find new energy savings. Some families wanted to solve disputes about which practices save the most energy.

Mertz said Boulder will hold sessions with participants every three months to find out how people are using the program and how it could be more helpful. Ideally, participants will see a financial benefit.

"The primary goal is to provide some tangible benefit to the project participants," she said. "What is the most useful format for customers to receive this usage data? We don't know that. We don't really know how resource usage information helps customers. We want to provide a service that is helpful." 'Makes me feel really gratified' Susie Youn, who lives in Newlands, added insulation and "probably a bunch of stuff the contractor knows about" as part of a remodel in 2003 that also took her home from 1,300 square feet to 2,000 square feet. Like many 1950s era homes, it had been drafty and energy inefficient before that. She added solar panels in 2008.

Youn and her husband Jim Booth, a scientist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, wanted to get individual appliance information mostly out of curiosity.

When she logged into the portal a few days after monitors were installed, the thing that jumped out at her were the solar savings.

"It's so cool," she said. "It's one thing to know the solar panels produce energy. It's another to see that we sold back $5 of energy yesterday. It makes me feel really gratified that we installed the solar panels." But when Youn went to look at individual appliance data, she didn't find the graphs particularly easy to follow. She said a tutorial for participants would be helpful.

Kathy Sokolic, project manager for Pecan Street, said a tutorial will be one of the offerings once the installations are complete.

In addition to making information available directly to residents, Pecan Street makes anonymized versions of the data sets available to the city of Boulder and to interested researchers.

'Chicken and egg problem' Des Rosiers said helping advance appliance and circuit-level energy use data -- and eventually the incentives that utilities can offer -- was one of his primary reasons for participating.

Microwave lightbulbs aside, he doubts he'll find a lot of energy savings in his home. Though he works as a sustainability consultant for large manufacturers and cares deeply about environmental issues, his family doesn't have the money to make upgrades for their own sake. It has to pencil out, from a dollars and cents perspective.

Replacing the microwave light with an LED will probably save him $3 a month, he estimates, and because the light will be brighter, they'll turn it off more.

He also noticed that the fan for his furnace accounts for almost half of his home energy use, and he wants to see if he can find a way to cycle it on and off.

Des Rosiers said the real-time information is interesting, but he'd also like to see more cumulative energy use data. Seeing the spike when the microwave goes on is interesting, but it doesn't tell him whether, over the course of the month, he should be using his stove or his microwave more or less.

That's the type of feedback the city is hoping to get over the next two years.

"It really is an open-ended research project, to find out what is helpful to customers to incentivize them to change their behavior and invest in efficiency," Mertz said.

Des Rosiers said he hopes the type of work Pecan Street is doing now means that, in 10 or 15 years, there will be more economic incentives to upgrade appliances and that there will be more technology for cycling appliances on and off, even remotely.

"It's a chicken and egg problem," he said. "If we could do more metering at the micro level, we could do a lot more interactive stuff with the grid.

"There has to be progress made somewhere." Contact Camera Staff Writer Erica Meltzer at 303-473-1355, meltzere@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/meltzere.

___ (c)2014 the Daily Camera (Boulder, Colo.) Visit the Daily Camera (Boulder, Colo.) at www.dailycamera.com Distributed by MCT Information Services

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