(Cheaper) Power to the People

(Cheaper) Power to the People

It's just possible we have entered the golden age of electricity—at least when it comes to consumers' convenience and pocketbooks.

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By Chris Fruitrich, GearBrain Contributor

The opportunity to take more control of your electric destiny is at hand. How is that possible? Think smart grids, home-generated power and devices linked via the IoT for maximum efficiency.

For the past century we thought very little about where the power comes from. All we knew was that when we plugged an appliance we expected it to work. Now every consumer can take an active role in their electric lifestyle if they so choose.

Smart grids

Our power grid is the largest interconnected machine on earth, serving more than 300 million people in their homes and businesses. According to the Department of Energy, the grid is 99.97 percent reliable. At first that sounds grand. But those unreliable three-one-hundredths of a percent cost consumers about $150 billion each year–or $500 for every person in the country.

To overcome that unnecessary expenditure, a massive technology upgrade of the grid came to the fore. The "smart" in smart grid is horribly late arriving at the 21st century party. Technology, computing power and connectivity have been used to improve productivity in dozens of other industries over the past three decades. Not energy.

The energy grid got its first big boost from the 2009 Recovery Act. A stimulus package, the Act included more than $4 billion from the government and $5 billion from the private sector to modernize the grid. Since then more than 330 projects have been completed. According to the DOE, that investment has led to a 50 percent reduction in operational costs.

Eventually the whole grid will become a "transactive system," relying on economic data and control techniques to improve its reliability and efficiency. (See Department of Energy description.)

What that means for consumers

• Advanced meters and energy management systems allow utilities, householders and business owners to monitor and adjust energy use on a 24/7 basis.

• Instant recognition of power interruptions. In many cases, rapid and automated responses to get the electricity flowing again. This frequently eliminates the need for maintenance workers to trouble shoot each incident. Both the producer and consumer save money.

• Elimination of old fashioned and expensive "standby" power plants kept largely to cover unusual loads.

A smart grid demonstration project with utility companies in Washington and Oregon predicted an 8 percent reduction in peak load region wide. That occurs even if fewer than a third of the utilities responded to the usage.

Get involved: Consumers can push for upgrades to their electric grid. Ask providers about when and if there are plans to adopt smart technology. See if your utility can help with smart technology for your home. Inquire about tax breaks. Don't be afraid to put pen to paper. Let representatives in Washington know smart grids are a must for your energy future.

Generating at home

Inventive technology has allowed many households to install power generation at the micro level, allowing them to both buy and sell power.

IoT advances include "net meters" that measure power from the grid to the home—and from a home. (See: "Energy at the Summit") Solar or wind generation is sent back to the grid when a surplus is generated. The more energy a home pushes back to the grid, the smaller its utility bill. Also, improved storage batteries help homeowners store power for down times from solar or wind systems.

One incentive? A federal tax credit that's up to 30 percent of a home generating system's cost. For solar installations the deadline for getting the credit was recently extended through 2019. State tax credits can be found here.


The sun is hot ... in terms of electricity generation.

Consider this:

• Nearly a million U.S. homes and businesses have solar electric panels installed on their roofs or grounds

• The power generated from those panels is enough to supply more than 4.6 million homes

• Solar has grown faster than any other power source in the past year

• A new solar installation goes up every two minutes

• Your home's value is likely to appreciate if it has a solar installation on it

In almost all areas of the U.S., solar energy will save customers money on their electric bill. However, installing a solar array large enough to power a household can be expensive.

The amount of money homeowners can save with solar varies on location and orientation of the house. In places like Arizona and Southern California, sun power may provide enough power to run an entire household. Elsewhere the results show less impact.

Cost of a typical home installation has dropped from about $90,000 in 1990 to less than $30,000 today. Most solar companies offer loans or lease options. For consumers, that means solar panels can be installed on their roofs for no up-front money.

Sean Dougherty, a spokesman for Vivint Solar, says his company and others will install the physical equipment. The firm then recoups costs by charging customers for the power they receive, at a rate lower than the local utility. Leases typically run 20 years. Lease-to-buy options also are on offer.

Solar City's Jonathan Bass says his company has similar plans. Savings of 15 to 20 percent are typical, even after adding lease or purchase payments. Bass also notes that software installed with the solar systems can show customers how they are using power – down to the individual appliance level – and make money-saving adjustment.

Get involved: Consumers interested in solar installations can contact dozens of companies around the nation, or research solar providers.


While not as popular as solar, wind energy has been making its mark on the residential market as well. Wind is not as ubiquitous as the sunshine. In many parts of the country, wind will not provide enough power to make an installation economically viable.

To consider a wind generator on a scale large enough to power the average home, a homeowner should have at least an acre of land and be prepared to spend between $30,000 and $70,000. Towers for whole-house capacity systems will average about 80 feet in height.

According to the Department of Energy, a wind generating system will take between six and 30 years to pay for itself.

See information on wind energy from the Department of Energy.

Get involved: Dozens of solar power companies offer free assessments of any home's potential (see list link above). Calling or clicking on any of them gets the system started. Wind energy suppliers can be found here.

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