Smart Energy Trials Making Headway, But Still Early

The idea of making the power grid smarter has entered the mainstream lexicon this year, with the inclusion of smart grid funding in the proposed stimulus package. Part of making the grid smarter is installing technology in homes — from smart meters, to better software, to wireless in-home networks — to help people monitor and reduce energy and cut down on their electricity bill. Some of the early trials that started in 2008 are starting to show positive results, but the more advanced technology is still taking baby steps.

This morning, smart grid startup Silver Spring Networks and software developer Greenbox are touting results of a small trial with Oklahoma Gas and Electric (s OGE). Silver Spring’s network technology was installed, along with smart meters in 6,600 apartments for a trial that tested remote monitoring and termination of services; 25 customers tested out energy management services using Greenbox in-home software.

During the trial, the 25 Greenbox customers could view electricity prices, which rise and fall during peak and off-peak times, and were able to adjust their energy consumption accordingly. Silver Spring and Greenbox say the results of the trial were “overwhelmingly positive,” and they said customers were pleased with greater control of their energy consumption. As a result, Oklahoma Gas and Electric says it plans to present the state regulatory commission for an expanded deployment.

Still, a 25-person trial is peanuts on the larger scale and the study didn’t disclose any real data (we’ve asked for more info and we’re waiting to hear back). More than anything, the tiny size is an indicator that utilities are starting to show interest in testing smart grid service, but that energy management is still in the very early days. Think about it: Utilities can clearly see the benefit of being able to remotely monitor and respond to the grid — they can respond faster to outages, and can save on transportation and staffing costs associated with reading meters on site. But it’s too early to tell if customers will actually want to actively manage their energy consumption.

Another recent smart energy trial with startup Positive Energy and Sacramento utility Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) is also illuminating on this point. In April 2008, SMUD started working with Positive Energy to offer basic energy reports for 35,000 customers that examine their energy consumption and compare it to the average energy consumption of other users. The trial is still ongoing until March 2009, but SMUD’s Project Manager Ali Crawford told us that so far the results show that “it is working” to reduce energy consumption and offer customers better service. SMUD will likely issue an RFP to start a commercial deployment in the near future.

But unlike energy management services like Greenbox, Positive Energy’s reports — which are printed out and mailed — are supposed to appeal to the average, non-technical, busy household. Customers in the SMUD trial didn’t even have smart meters; they just benefited from more information. While U.S. utilities are about ready to start offering more energy data to customers, they’re treading very cautiously into the early-adopter, real-time-pricing energy management services.