Duke Energy Corp. is taking a first step toward that reality as it installs thousands of special power-saving meters in homes in several South Charlotte neighborhoods. Duke is also placing special communication boxes on poles in the neighborhoods. The meters and boxes work together to collect and transmit data to a central computer uptown.
There, numbers are crunched that Duke hopes will reveal useful trends about consumer power use. Someday, Duke wants to use the information and two-way communication to cycle appliances on and off during peak demand and to chart when customers use appliances that would be equipped with special sensors.
Using power-heavy appliances, such as dryers, during off-peak hours takes stress off the system and saves the company money. If you choose not to participate in some of the programs, you might receive an extra charge. It's all part of Duke's plans to cut power demand as it moves forward with aggressive energy efficiency plans called save-a-watt.
The N.C. Utilities Commission this year plans to review the proposal, which would allow the company to recoup profits lost from selling less electricity. Duke says efficiency programs mean it will build fewer expensive power plants in the future. Coal-fired plants, which provide 52 percent of Duke's power in the Carolinas, emit carbon dioxide - blamed as a cause of global warming.
But the company says it wants to be compensated. So-called smart meters cut power bills by 10 percent in a study of 112 households released Jan. 9 by the U.S. Energy Department.
Recently, a Duke crew traveled to homes on All Saints Lane in South Charlotte and replaced old General Electric meters with new ones, manufactured by Echelon, based in San Jose, Calif. Inside of 10 seconds, a Duke-hired technician popped out the old meter on the outside of the house and replaced it with the new meter - the same size and shape as the old round glass meters and built to Duke's specifications. The family inside wouldn't notice the seconds-long power outage - other than having to reset some clocks.
More than 250 meters have been installed and more are coming online each day. The company plans to install 5,000 in Charlotte and 2,500 north of Greenville, S.C. The utility wants its 4 million customers in the Carolinas and three Midwest states to have the new meters inside five years, said David Staggs, a Duke project manager.
Widespread adoption of the systems by the nation's utilities would save $70 billion in costs for new power plants and lines over 20 years, says a recent study from the U.S. Department of Energy. As many as 45 million smart meters may be ordered by 2011, said Sam Lucero, a consultant for ABI Research in Scottsdale, Ariz.
The number of smart meters installed in North America rose 26 percent last year to 15.8 million, Lucero said. That will surge o 61 million by 2013, he forecast. Duke's phasing in of new efficiency programs, which has begun with the meter installation, would remove consumer choice for some.
For example, about 185,000 residential Carolinas customers are signed up for a program that gives an $8 break on summer bills if they allow Duke to cycle their air conditioning on and off during peak demand. Under save-a-watt, Duke would use the meters to automatically enroll customers in that efficiency program.
Customers probably would no longer receive the special break, and those that opt out might have to pay something extra, said Duke spokesman Tom Williams. He stressed that the details of save-a-watt and future programs still have to be hammered out by regulators.
In addition to meters, customers might have special terminals in their homes to show real-time power use and cost, such as how much it just cost to cook a meal or iron a shirt, Staggs said. Duke said studies conclude that people who can see their power use on a screen are more likely to conserve.
"They can look at what their stove is costing them," Staggs said.
Duke Energy Corp. is equipping thousands of customers in Charlotte with new smart meters that communicate with a central command computer uptown. Duke says the meters, which would work as part of a broader communication network; can notify it of power outages before customers have to call; restore power quicker after ice storms and cut power usage for customers by analyzing exactly how they can save energy.
The meters would also help Duke cut down on the 7 to 9 percent of electricity lost because some power lines become too hot. For Duke in the Carolinas, that lost power equals nearly 2,000 megawatts, or four medium-sized power plants.