Water Heaters Get Their Smart Grid On

Wind power is one the rise in the U.S., thanks in part to a flurry of federal and state incentives, as are smart grid and smart meter systems aimed at helping homeowners save money and utility companies reach new efficiency mandates. A new pilot program between the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA)–one of the largest distributors of electricity in the Pacific Northwest–and one of their member utilities, Mason County Public Utility District Number 3 (MCPUD3) is combining these two technologies in a novel way, helping to store wind power for home use.

Storing power has long been an issue for weather-based renewable energy systems such as wind and solar, as the electrical grid relies on a steady source of electricity to avoid surges and black-outs. Rather than going for a big, centralized solution to the storage issue–such as pumped hydro or sodium sulfur batteries–BPA and MCPUD3 are starting with a simple, distributed storage method utilizing an existing technology that’s already located in your home: the water heater.

As part of the pilot program, MCPUD 3 will install special devices on water heaters that will communicate with the electrical grid and tell the appliances to turn on or off, based on conditions of the regional electrical system and the amount of renewable energy available. When the wind blows and turbines produce electricity, the water heaters of participating homeowners will fire up, reducing the demand for electricity from other sources when family members turn on the hot water.

To help us get a handle on how all of this works, and what the implications are, we turned to Lee Hall, BPA’s Smart Grid and Demand Response Program Manager.

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image via BPA

EarthTechling (ET): One of the goals of Mason County Public Utility District 3′s pilot program is to help to move the demand for electricity from peak to off-peak times. How does this help both the utility and the homeowners involved?

Lee Hall (LH): The simultaneous use of electricity in the region causes a significant increase in demand for power, which can strain the electrical system. Turning off the water heaters during this period of peak use can help level out the spike in energy consumption and ease that strain.

For the utility and its customers, this reduces the fees a utility has to pay for their peak power demand.  For the region, reducing electricity during peak use periods can ease strain on the federal hydro system. The demand for electricity is growing, as are operational demands to protect fish runs and integrate variable resources such as wind.  Flattening out electricity use can help keep rates lower by reducing the need to purchase more costly market energy to meet periods of higher demand.

For Mason County PUD #3 customers, they will also get the ability to integrate renewable energy, in the form of wind power, into their homes.  That’s something they can feel good about.

Susan DeFreitas has covered all manner of green technology for EarthTechling since 2009. She is a graduate of Prescott College for the Liberal Arts and the Environment, and has a background in marketing green businesses. Her work on green living has been featured in Yes! Magazine, the Utne Reader and Natural Home.