January 31, 2008
| by Lisa Montgomery
Coal means a lot to the residents of Utah. It has the distinction of being Utah’s state rock and is burned in power plants to generate heat and electricity for millions of homes and businesses. Nearly 95 percent of Utah’s electricity is supplied by coal-fired power plants, according to Western Resource Advocates, a non-profit environmental law and policy organization. “On the surface, it makes a lot of sense to use this resource for energy and stay on the utility grid,” says Ken Schreiner, who owns a home with his wife, Abbie, in Salt Lake City. “The problem is, when coal burns it creates a lot of air pollution.”
Fortunately, sunshine is another resource that’s abundant in Utah. Blessed to live somwhere that has more than 300 sunny days a year, Ken and Abbie decided to do something good for the environment and also take a step toward energy independence by harvesting this clean, renewable energy source to power their home. They started by contacting a local solar dealer to install tracking solar panels onto a pole in the backyard. The rest of the setup, which resides in the garage, can be managed completely from the Schreiners’ home PC. The size of a small refrigerator, the GridPoint Connect feeds information about Ken and Abbie’s energy consumption patterns to the GridPoint operations center via the Internet. There, the data is tabulated and placed on a private energy management web portal, GridPoint Central, that the Schreiners can access via their computer.
The web site shows in near real time (the data is updated hourly) how much solar power the panels are producing and sending to the utility grid, how much solar energy the homeowners have used and which appliances are drawing the most energy, among other bits of information. “The system really gets you in touch with your house,” says Ken. “For example, from the information on the web portal, I learned that certain devices, like our cable boxes and stereo receivers, were consuming energy overnight when they weren’t even being used.” Ken plugged those devices into a surge strip that could be completely turned off. This clever solution cut his home’s nighttime energy usage in half.
The GridPoint system goes a step further, powering devices like refrigerators and air conditioners with solar energy that has been stored in its batteries. “We can run completely off solar energy during the day, then use the backup solar power at night,” explains Ken. While it’s possible for GridPoint users to occasionally pull themselves off the utility grid, the system was not designed to eliminate a consumer’s dependence on his or her local utility, says GridPoint vice president of product strategy Brian Golden. “In addition to optimizing consumers’ use of renewable energy sources, the system helps them take advantage of energy-saving utility programs like load management and net metering.” For example, through the GridPoint web portal, a homeowner can see when power from the utility is cheapest, then program certain devices like pool pumps and dishwashers to run during those off-peak times. Through net metering programs, GridPoint users like the Schreiners can share stored solar energy with their local utilities for credits on their monthly utility bills. This program has helped Ken and Abbie save a bundle. For example, in one month they sent 14.1 kilowatt hours of surplus power to their utility company. That was enough to reduce their $130 utility bill to $50. Thanks to the GridPoint system, “we’ve become not just an energy user but a producer,” says Ken. Sharing energy and saving money—that’s green living at its best.
Lisa Montgomery has been writing about home technology for 15 years, with a focus on the impact of electronics on a modern lifestyle.