Help on the way for home energy savers

PECO president and CEO Craig L. Adams in in Washington, D.C., today, pledging to help his company's 1.6 million residential customers in southeastern Pennsylvania save more on their home energy bills.

The company has committed to providing customers access to "Green Button" data about energy use. It could help them better understand where and when they use electricity, and how they could make changes that would lower their energy use...and the money they pay for it.

Never heard of "Green Button?"   It's modeled after the "Blue Button" initiative by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that allows people to access and download their own health information.

This afternoon, President Obama is visiting Ohio State University to highlight energy research and development, and the Green Button is part of his all-of-the-above strategy, write Presidential Science Advisor John P. Holdren and Nancy Sutley, chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, in a White House blog post.

Basically, the Green Button is more of an idea, and a logo on an electric company's website or a customer's computer screen.  

Each electric company is coming up with its own plans for a Green Button, and various high-tech companies -- Belkin, Efficiency 2.0, EnergySavvy, FirstFuel, Hopnest Buildings, Plotwatt and others -- are coming up with actual applications, based on technical standards that have been developed.

But what you, the consumer, will see is an array of data that illuminates what's going on in your house.

"Our customers will literally be able to click on one button on their computer and download personal usage information from our website," said spokeswoman Karen Muldoon Geus.

PECO's plan will go into effect in 2013, she said.  So the company is still figuring out what precisely customers will get -- day-to-day data, or minute to minute? Appliance by appliance? There are many options.

This is all building on PECO's "Smart Ideas" energy savings initiatives, including rebates for certain appliances.

Meanwhile, those who live in PPL territory are getting some new energy-saving tools as well.

Customers can designate any day of the week that they want as a "Free Power Day." They can use as much as they want that day, and not pay a cent. The rest of the week they will be charged a fixed rate of $0.0869 cents per kWh.

Colleen Wassell, part of a family of five, bundles all her electricity-gulping chores into Saturday and designates that as her free day. She's found that her electricity bill was cut in half.

I'm not sure how this helps the company exactly, except maybe officials can make better predictions about power usage. If I were a customer, however, and I pushed all my laundry to one day, I'd probably wind up using the clothes dryer instead of hanging stuff on the line, which would be an increase in my electricity use, if not the amount I pay for it. But I'm sure people's experiences vary.

Another new PPL plan that I would make HUGE use of is the "Best Hourly Rate Plan," which charges on-peak and off-peak rates.  The on-peak time is noon to 6:59 p.m., and if customers use electricity during those hours, they're charged $0.0869 cents per kWh. IF they use electricity any other time, they're charged two cents less.

As I wrote in a recent column, the benefit of off-peak usage in the broader electricity market is that it steers usage from peak times when energy production is most expensive. And since the entire system -- transmission lines, power plants, you name it - has to be sized to handle those peak loads, using more power in off-peak moments reduces the need for new plants and new lines.