Smart meters and technology are changing the electric utility industry and allowing consumers to gain greater control of their energy use, utility and technology representatives said at the Governor's Energy Conference on Thursday.
Oklahoma Gas and Electric Co. customers are part of one of the largest utility-level deployments of smart meters in the country. OG&E hopes energy-efficiency efforts and smart grid technology will let it postpone the need for a new generating plant until at least 2020.
“There's a new player in town, and it's called the smart grid,” said Jesse Langston, vice president of retail energy for OGE Energy Corp., OG&E's parent company.
“I personally believe it's the most significant game changer in the future. I say that because it's technology and customers. It's where those two meet together. When you give them that power, you turn that commodity, electricity, into comfort, convenience and safety, something a lot more meaningful than just electricity.”
Langston said the old way of using and paying for electricity was similar to buying gasoline and not knowing the price at the pump. Smart meters give consumers price transparency, he said.
“It enables you to see what you're consuming and it enables you to understand what it costs you for electricity,” he said.
Nationwide, about one-third of households now have smart meters, Langston said.
Recent surveys by J.D. Power and Associates found customers think having smart meters benefits the environment, helps manage their costs and gets meter readers out of their backyards. Customers also save money, Langston said. But more than anything else, customers told surveyors that their bills are accurate.
“Our complaints from customers have gone down, mostly driven by accuracy in bills,” Langston said. “When our customers call up and talk to one of our consultants, they have data to look at and help them understand what's going on with their bill. Unlike before, we're having better, broader, deeper conversations with our customers about their usage and what they can do.”
Langston said technology will transform the electric utility business in a similar way that it did for the telecommunications industry.
“Technology makes everything faster, smaller, cheaper,” he said. “Smart grid is a gateway for innovation, it's a platform for products and services, and it's a way for us to address our customer needs.”
Efficiency is goal
Neha Palmer, with Google's global infrastructure team, said technology and cloud-based computing require a lot of electricity to keep data centers running 24 hours a day. The Internet search giant invested $700 million for a data center in Pryor in northeastern Oklahoma. Driven by its co-founders, Google has pledged to increase its energy efficiency and work toward a carbon-neutral goal companywide, Palmer said.
Palmer said Google's data centers are 50 percent more efficient than the typical data center. The company works on continually measuring its energy usage, adjusting the thermostat and managing air flow around computer servers.
“This is really through the hard work of our engineers,” Palmer said. “For the last 10 years, they've been really focused on squeezing out every last piece of efficiency they can.”
Google employs more than 100 people at its Pryor data center and has an agreement with NextEra Energy Resources to buy electricity from NextEra's Minco II wind farm in Caddo and Grady counties. Last week, Google signed an agreement with the Grand River Dam Authority to buy 48 megawatts of wind power from GRDA's share of the Canadian Hills wind farm under construction in central Oklahoma.
“It's the first time we've been able to partner with a utility,” Palmer said of the GRDA agreement. “We think this is very important because utilities have expertise with things like power scheduling, transmission and (generation) resource mix that we don't have. We find that's a way to optimize our energy use and leverage their expertise.”
Palmer said Google's goal is to get to 100 percent renewable generation for its electricity.
“We understand that is a goal,” she said. “The sun doesn't shine 24 hours a day and the wind doesn't always blow. We need to have a diversified energy mix in the interim to get us there. But we're hoping that, with time, technology advancements such as storage and smart grid, rapid-response generation will help us eventually increase the amount of renewables on the grid.”