A demonstration project at the University of Washington will help students cut the school's energy bill; it's part of a larger, five-state project to make the power grid "smarter."

Share story

With the help of a device that monitors energy consumption in her dorm room, University of Washington student Simone Schaffer was surprised to discover that her computer monitor is constantly devouring electricity — even when the screen is dark.

But the device that measures power use also allows Schaffer to take command of her energy-slurping monitor. She can shut a suite of electronics down completely with the touch of a button, using either a control panel in her room, or remotely through a cellphone app.

As a resident hall adviser in Elm Hall, she’s among the first participants in an experiment to see if having more control and information about power use can motivate consumers to take steps to save energy.

For the UW, the stakes are high. As Seattle City Light’s largest customer, the university pays the utility about $1 million a month for electricity.

The UW experiment is a small part of a $178 million, five-year federal demonstration project in five Western states to make the energy grid “smarter.” The project is being funded with federal stimulus dollars and money from utilities and other participants.

It’s an effort to marry the age of the Internet to the complexity of the power grid, with a little help from motivated customers and a long-term goal of running the system more efficiently, said Carl Imhoff, energy infrastructure sector manager at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, operated by Battelle.

“We’re basically leveraging the new communications technology and inexpensive computers — the Internet revolution — and applying it to the electricity side of the world,” Imhoff said.

The project also includes demonstration projects in Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Wyoming that give customers more information about how they are using power.

The energy-monitoring devices in students’ rooms are just one part of the UW’s participation. The university is also installing 235 electrical meters on campus to do the work that, in the past, was done by just seven meters, said Norm Menter, the UW’s energy-conservation manager.

“We aren’t just measuring electricity to put on a bill — we’re actually monitoring these meters in near-real time,” Menter said. “We’re using that data to make better decisions.”

The UW’s power bill includes the cost of keeping lights on in 178 different buildings across campus, including the UW Medical Center, residence halls, athletic fields, research labs and academic buildings, Menter said. By more closely monitoring the buildings, the UW hopes to learn how to do a better job of saving energy.

As part of the demonstration project, the school has picked out five buildings on campus and designed their energy controls so they can “talk” to the regional power system, allowing the building’s electricity use to be automatically adjusted based on the predicted cost of power, Menter said.

The price that Seattle City Light pays for power changes constantly throughout the day, depending on the weather and the demands on the power grid. Menter said the UW can use that information to keep power use low when energy costs are high.

For example, if a wave of hot weather is forecast to raise the price of electricity, the automated system at the UW will cool a building overnight and allow it to “coast” during the day. The temperature fluctuation will be so slight that, “We don’t think people will notice,” Menter said.

The UW project has a $10.2 million total price tag; the UW is paying half, and the rest is coming from federal funds. Menter said the project will save at least $350,000 a year in electrical costs, but it could save even more. For example, the extensive monitoring of power use can help the university spot maintenance issues and fix them before too much energy is wasted, he said.

Eventually, Imhoff said, smart-grid technology could allow utilities to send a message to consumers, letting them know the price of power was about to rise or fall the next day — or even the next hour. That could encourage people to plan their energy use; for example, they could do their laundry during a high-wind day in Eastern Washington, when a lot of cheap wind power is being generated.

The five-state project is expected to create about 1,500 jobs — including 500 in Washington — in manufacturing, installing and operating equipment, telecommunications networks, software and controls. A 2007 federal energy bill provided the framework for the smart-grid projects, and was sponsored by U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell.

The UW experiment in Elm Hall started earlier this fall, with a handful of resident advisers. In November, it will be extended to about 200 Elm Hall students, said Evann Sawyers-Rouse, a second-year graduate student in the Evans School of Public Affairs. She is helping to conduct the experiment as part of a graduate research project.

Across the street, in Poplar Hall, students living on different floors are getting reports on the total amount of energy being consumed per floor, and competing to save the most. The graduate students will compare the results from the two dorms to see which group did better — the students in Elm who had control over individual devices, or those in Poplar who got general information about the overall use of power on their floor.

Regardless of which method is more effective, Sawyers-Rouse thinks that projects like these can help students become more energy-efficient, and help lower that big power bill for the university.

“There’s a lot of promise here to save a lot of money,” she said.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @katherinelong.