PGE’s Smart Grid Test Bed pioneers customer-side resources

Achieving a low-carbon or no-carbon energy system isn’t just a matter of switching our sources of electricity from coal-fired and natural gas-fired power plants to wind and solar power.  It’s also about embracing more energy efficient houses, buildings, and appliances that reduce our need for electricity.  And it’s about engaging new resources, many of them found in customer homes and businesses — roof-top solar, thermostats, water heaters, electric vehicle chargers, and batteries — that either generate electricity or that can shift our need for electricity away from peak periods of consumption.  By doing so, we can avoid spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build “peaker” power plants, usually fired by natural gas, that often are called into service only a few hours every year.

In all, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council expects these customer-side resources to meet more than three-quarters of the growing region’s need for new and replacement power as it retires coal-fired and gas-fired power plants.  But, that promise can only be realized if customer-side resources can be effectively integrated to help utilities manage and shape demand while seamlessly meeting customer needs.  Oregon’s largest electric utility, Portland General Electric (PGE) is taking an important step toward making the promise a reality by launching a pilot program to integrate customer-side resources into the electric system “on a scale never before attempted in the United States”.

The “Smart Grid Test Bed” will engage more than 20,000 residential and commercial customers in a collaborative effort to shift demand away from high-consumption times of day when outdoor temperatures are either very hot or very cold.  PGE expects those circumstances to arise anywhere from 10 to 20 times per year.  When they do, participating customers will receive an email, phone call, or text message advising them that can receive rebates in return for reducing electricity consumption.  This notification process is just a precursor to a time in the relatively near future when customer-side appliances and systems may be connected to the grid and controlled directly by the utility.  In 2018, PGE conducted a highly successful test of that capability with grid-integrated water heaters.

However, it will be a while before most appliances and systems are equipped for grid integration.  In the meantime PGE is pushing ahead in educating and acclimating customers to the concepts of demand response and direct load control in order to gauge their receptivity and to refine the utility’s skill in using customer-side resources effectively.  To that end, PGE has established an aggressive goal of 66% residential customer participation in its Milwaukie and Hillsboro, Oregon test markets and 25% to 40% participation for commercial customers.  Historically, demand response programs nationally have achieved participation rates in the single digits.

The NW Energy Coalition congratulates PGE for pioneering new resources and capabilities that are essential for the Northwest’s transition to an ultra low carbon energy system.