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Smart grid pilot project debuting at University of Washington

Most people who pay their own energy bills know that power is expensive. But where it’s coming from and how much it costs is often more mysterious.

That could change if technology that’s part of ademonstration project at the University of Washington catches on. It’s co funded by the US Department of Energy. The U-dub is the largest of 16 demo sites creating a new Pacific Northwest Smart Grid.

It's a regional system that will empower consumers and utilities with information about their electricity. The $178-million project spans 5 western states.

At the U-dub, grad students in the school of public affairs have created a  smart meter to display and control the data. It’s a small box about the size of a smart phone, with a silent touch screen.

“When you scroll through, you can look at your energy usage by minute, hour or day," says Duncan Clausen, one of the students developing it. "Then you can also look at that by week month or year. And it shows you the highest and lowest kilowatt usage for that given period of time.”

He demonstrates the device, near some kitchen counters.

There are three presets: home, away and the sleep mode. Choosing the right one helps cut down on electricity use.

“So it’s really easy to control those. When you go to bed, you just push one button and it shuts down all the appliances that you want to have shut down, but can also leave critical things like your desktop computer on, so it can update overnight.”

And it can be accessed remotely, using a smart phone. So if you leave the oven on by accident, for example, you could use the phone to turn it off.

But really what the project is trying to demonstrate, is that if people are aware of their energy use, they’ll conserve.

“So, we got involved because we needed metering, on campus," says Norm Menter, with the U-Dub’s facilities department.

Menter helped write the grant application to fund the project. He says smart meters will be installed on all campus buildings.  And more than 400 students will have them in their residence halls.

“So that’s going to be a huge improvement in our ability to measure and monitor electricity use," Menter says.

Menter’s standing outside of Elm Hall, where the tabletop meters will be used by students. He says another dorm building will have smart meters installed to monitor energy use, without the controllers – as a baseline comparison, “to see whether it impacts people’s behavior and whether it has an impact on how much electricity they use.”  

The hope is that the information does affect them, so that ultimately, the United States can conserve more electricity.

Back at the sustainability office, grad student Duncan Clausen says the prospect of building fewer new power plants that pollute the environment or cost precious taxpayer dollars is what excites and motivates him.

“We’re able to go the efficiency route, which is just: ‘let’s not use it, if we don’t need it,’” he says.

If it works, the information will create awareness and reduce energy use, especially in situations where consumers can get direct information on their energy costs, and for example, run high-voltage appliances such as clothes dryers only when power is cheap, due to excess hydroelectric or wind power.

If so, the Pacific NW Smart Grid could help governments and utilities avoid the cost and expense of building new power plants.

The UW’s pilot project alone is expected to save the university $350,000 on power bills

Clausen will speak alongside US Senator Maria Cantwell at an event on Wednesday to unveil and celebrate this new technology.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to