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NYSEG Substation

NYSEG is launching the Energy Smart Community in large portions of Lansing, Dryden and Ithaca.  This week we look at an energy future for consumers that will be up and running in Tompkins County this summer.  Next week we'll look at how the new upgrades will better facilitate alternative power sources like solar and wind power generation.
The email said, "Introducing Smart Savings Rewards; Get $85 by enrolling your thermostat; Honeywell and NYSEG have teamed up to save you energy and turn it into real dollars. You can earn $85 when you enroll in Smart Savings Rewards. Plus, for each event that you fully participate in, you can earn $5 in bill credits. Enroll your thermostat to begin saving."

Huh?  Following the link I found, "Enrollment will allow us to make brief, limited adjustments to your Wi-Fi thermostat during times of peak summer electric demand (May 1 through September 30)."  My first thought was that the idea of a big utility company connecting to the Internet-connected thermostat in my home to control the temperature smacked of dystopian future scifi.  Then I thought the future is now.  Here is a way to save energy fairly automatically, without thinking about it, and saving money at the same time.

"There are people who want to do it all -- they want to change their thermostat and they want to feel in control -- they don't want to hand that over to someone else," says NYSEG Spokeswoman Susan Mann.  "There are other people who say: don't make me think about this -- I don't care about it- this is not what I'm worried about.  I have other, bigger things I need to worry about.  Maybe it's meeting my rent, or whatever it is."

Starting in March parts of Lansing, Dryden, and Ithaca will become a test area for a new program, Energy Smart Community,  that will turn the electric grid into a king of Internet of electricity capable of two-way communication, providing hour by hour data to customers and NYSEG alike, and offering products to consumers that can save both money and energy.  Mann says the program will give customers the information and tools they need to decide how they use electricity, whatever their motivation, be it convenience, saving the planet, or just want to save a buck. 

"That is an example of demand/response," she says.  "At critical times of peak demand, in order to avoid bringing on additional power plants, if we can just reduce load (demand) literally by a small amount, we can avoid bringing a whole plant online.  And we will pay a customer for that ability.  I come home and I literally just want to flick on a light switch and not think about it.  But I do care about my carbon footprint and I want easy ways to be part of the solution.  If you give me an easy way that's going to cost me very little money or not cost me any money at all, and cannot inconvenience me or make me feel uncomfortable in my own home, but can make me feel like I'm doing my part, then yeah, I might be interested."

NYSEG is a subsidiary of Avangrid (formerly Iberdrola USA), a subsidiary of Spanish company Iberdrola.  It is Avangrid that is implementing the Energy Smart Community in Tompkins County over the next several months.  The company is partnering with local entities like Cornell University and Cornell Cooperative Extension to develop for and disseminate  information about the program, and Mann says Tompkins County is the perfect test bed, or 'launch pad' for a program that will eventually be scaled up throughout the company's service territory, which encompasses 25 states.

"We like to use the word launchpad," Mann says.  "We don't want Tompkins County people to feel like they are test citizens.  They are active and engaged customers.We know that Tompkins County is special in many ways.  That is why a program like this is a really good fit here.  Because this county is very forward looking in its energy goals.  It has an energy road map, predictors and goals that they are trying to reach.  So they are doing a lot of thinking and it really makes sense to be here."

Energy Smart Community is actually a suite of 11 projects that will join to create a kind of energy Internet capable of two way communication.  On the grid side that will mean upgrades so the grid can accept energy from more sources like solar or wind farms.  On the information side it will mean customers get access to detailed information about their own energy use.  On the consumer side it will mean being able to easily connect to products or services that manage your electricity usage more efficiently.

"Think of it like an internet, where the grid needs to become like the Internet with all sorts of people connecting to it, data and information flowing freely, appliances talking to each other, systems talking to each other," Mann explains.  "The grid wasn't designed to be like that.  We have to take the existing grid infrastructure, continue to operate it really reliably, safely, and affordably, and move it into the 21st century.

energysmart tompkinsmap200To make Energy Smart Community work, NYSEG is upgrading 15 circuits in four substations on 4th Street in Ithaca, near the Triphammer marketplace, Woodsedge, and across the street from Scoops near the Crossroads Bar & Grill in Lansing.  Next month YES Home Solutions, an online marketplace for energy products and services that tie into the program will launch.  12,400 smart meters will replace old electric meters customers within the designated area.  These meters will be capable of transmitting real data to a customer portal on the Internet to track your electricity use.  The last piece will be an energy manager that customers can use to control when they use energy.

Once this is all in place you will be able to control why, how, and when you use electricity.  It's not just about controlling your thermostat to reduce grid demand in peak electricity usage times such as hot days in summer.  In the future it may be about other appliances, like dishwashers or dryers that could be loaded at any time and then automatically turn on during lower rate hours. 

"Over time there might be even more options as the technology evolves," Mann says.  "This is something that Cornell University is looking at with the research they are looking into.  Could there be a smart meter married with a rate married with a home energy management system married with storage that was making all of these decisions for you?  It might also include new rate options.  When we have smart meters and and integral meter data, so we can see and you can see what you are using hour by hour -- because right now neither of us can see that -- with that we could offer new rate options like time of use rates, so that we would have different rates for different times of the day."

"People are already familiar with this and strongly like the day and night rates," she continues.  "It's just taking that a little bit further, with the idea being that with a time of use rate there will be a period of time when the rates might be a little bit higher.  If customers were prepared to take some actions and sign onto one of these new rate structures, they could potentially lower their overall bill by avoiding using electricity during this peak time."

Or what if you didn't need to worry about what the rates are, even during peak times?  What if batteries in your home, or somewhere in your neighborhood stored electricity during the low-rate hours so that you could use power at those low rates during the more expensive hours?  Researchers at Cornell University are working on how combining storage batteries with 'time-of-use' pricing and home energy management to reduce peak demand for NYSEG while reducing electric bills for you.  Ultimately this may be implemented in homes, or at the community or grid level.

"Tomorrow's going to be a hot afternoon and the rates are going to be higher," Mann says.  "It will load up the batteries that night when energy is really cheap, and when you come home you can still run your dishwasher... you can still run your thermostat at your preferred settings, only it will be drawing on stored power instead of grid power.  It would be a piece of software.  You might not even need to have a battery in your home.  The battery could be located some place else entirely."

The key thing the program brings is two-way communication.  In the past some customers have had access to night rates and day rates, and could choose to stay up late to turn on their dishwasher to get the lower night rate, or run such appliances on a timer.  Now you will have access to hour by hour rate data as well as data on your current usage so you can tweak the ways you use electricity to suit your lifestyle, wallet, and even ethics -- reducing peak demand means bringing fewer power plants on line during those hours, which, at the moment, means burning fewer fossil fuels to produce electricity.

The electric company is willing to put its money where its mouth is, paying you to let this happen, as they are with my smart thermostat.  Mann stresses that it is not about Big Brother controlling your home, but about giving you choices that the company may make attractive enough to benefit both NYSEG's and your wallet.  I am not yet convinced that allowing NYSEG to make my house a little warmer without my intervention is the best choice for me, but I concede that for many people it will be.

In another email Honeywell told me that the Amazon Echo can control my thermostat, so I could tell it to raise or lower the temperature by voice commands (if I had an Echo or a Dot).  Mann says Avangrid is looking into ways to encompass all kinds of popular connected consumer technology.  In the future you might be able to simply tell your thermostat your plans or what you are feeling to control the temperature, humidity, lighting and appliances in your home.  "Alexis," you might say.  "I'm cold" and it might raise the temperature a bit.  Or, "Alexis, I'm going to work now, but will be home at 6pm" and your air conditioner will turn off until 5:30, saving energy while insuring you a comfortable homecoming on a hot summer day.  The possibilities are endless, and will be here in Tompkins County -- not in some distant future, but some time this summer.

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