UW Using Smart Grid Technology To Conserve Energy, Save Money

Mar 17, 2014

It’s often said that the best way to reduce our carbon emissions is through energy conservation. One way to do that more effectively is by using computer technology to make the electric grid more intelligent.  

It’s known as smart grid technology and for the past two years, the U.S. Department of Energy has been spending $178 million to test it in five Northwest states.

One of the biggest demonstration projects is on the campus of the University of Washington where knowledge of when power is used is saving big money.

UW is the fifth largest employer in Washington state. Combine its staff with the students and pool all their energy needs in labs, libraries, dorms and medical centers, and its usage is considerable.

“On any given day there are 60,000 people on the Seattle campus,” said Norm Menter, UW’s energy conservation manager. “So we take care of the environmental requirements for those people’s everyday life and work life.”

For the past two years, Menter has been immersed in smart grid technology with mixed results. A test of smart meters and digital dashboards showing energy use in freshmen dorm rooms didn’t produce any measurable evidence that shows awareness leads to conservation by consumers.

But Menter says awareness has helped the university save $130,000 a year on its energy bills, though more intelligent use of the steam plant at the heart of the campus, shown in this YouTube video made by UWTV.

Facilities manager Garrin Sakagawa says the smart grid technology has given them more exact data. With graphs showing them every 15 minutes of use, they can see now if a building is being heated or lit at times when no one is inside, perhaps because someone failed to properly program the thermostat. 

He says they were able to adjust heating schedules and save power in 18 of the 21 buildings they studied.

And they’ve also been getting regional price data through the smart grid that tells them when demand is spiking and pushing costs up. At those times, they can fire up their steam plant to save money and reduce the draw on Seattle City Light.

At times when renewables such as wind and solar are more abundant, the steam plant powers down.