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Coming to America

U.S. utilities are gaining valuable lessons from technology developments abroad.

Fortnightly Magazine - March 2008

want to pilot before going to mass deployment.”

Such efforts as Duke’s Utility of the Future project (see sidebar) and demonstration centers like those at CenterPoint Energy, Oncor and other utilities also will educate consumers and encourage U.S. utilities to adopt new technology sooner, notes Wilhite. Additionally, government programs at both the state and federal levels might drive forward technology development and implementation.

“Utilities in California used to spend large sums for new technology R&D, but between R&D and implementation is the Valley of Death,” says John Wilson, an advisor to California Energy Commissioner Art Rosenfeld in Sacramento. “With the advent of restructuring, utilities didn’t want to continue carrying the expense of R&D, so the California Energy Commission inherited the initiative.”

As part of the California Commission’s Emerging Technologies Coordinating Council, Pacific Gas & Electric is tapping state tax funding to bring U.S. and foreign technologies to its customers in a variety of projects. In one such program, hotel room energy usage could be cut by up to 40 percent through the use of occupancy sensor switches, which can shut off air conditioning and lighting automatically.

“This technology is common in Europe, but has not yet been adopted by hotels in this country,” says John Mejia, PG&E’s program manager for emerging technologies resources. Cumulatively, these projects could contribute up to 50 percent of the utility’s overall goals for energy efficiency, depending on market acceptance.

Ultimately, market forces will determine how development dollars are spent. For example, if utilities fail to offer enough energy efficiency capabilities to their customers, someone else will.

“A separate market that offers home-based technology options may develop, in which white goods have the hardware and algorithms embedded directly,” Wilhite says. “If not, there may be a third-party market for direct control of these devices, which could match up with energy service providers through unregulated utility subsidiaries or other energy service providers.”

And regulation is expected to drive more technology adoption as energy efficiency—including key performance indicators—and carbon-emission limits gain importance in public policy. “Federal standards (including estimates) on renewable generation and their impact on the grid may be underestimated, since some of these assets are far removed from the grid,” Wilhite says. “Bringing distributed resources into the grid will change power flow planning for the future.”