An energy revolution that will put power into the hands of the people is moving forward in Tompkins County, thanks to a collaboration between Cornell researchers and energy industry partners. Their goal: A future in which households measure and manage their own electricity use, achieving lower electric bills, reduced emissions and a more equitable pricing system.
In the summer of 2016, a team led by Todd Cowen, the Kathy Dwyer Marble and Curt Marble faculty director for energy at the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and the project’s principal investigator, was awarded a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to create, test and optimize new residential electric storage systems.
For the past year, the team – which includes Cornell faculty across disciplines; industry partners Avangrid (NYSEG’s parent company), BMW North America, Tesla and Distributed Sun; and community partner Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County (CCE-Tompkins) – has been developing a pilot program that allows consumers to better control their energy use through smart meters, virtual and rechargeable batteries, and an online energy manager.
“Smart meters – which measure and manage residential electricity in real time – are already in about 40 percent of U.S. homes, but consumers have been largely absent from the process. This project corrects that, so consumers are engaged in managing their own energy use,” said Cowen, professor of civil and environmental engineering.
The Energy Smart Community pilot program covers the approximately 12,400 properties in Tompkins County that were equipped with smart meters in the fall. In conjunction with the smart meters, consumers can access their energy-use data through a new online energy manager that launched in February. The benefits of this online portal are twofold: NYSEG customers gain greater control over their energy choices, and project researchers study granular data about individuals’ energy usage so they can understand how to encourage more residents to embrace the technology.
The online manager also connects users with energy-efficient products, services and rebates through the NYSEG Smart Solutions website.
“Tompkins County residents are very energy literate and hungry for information,” Cowen said. “As data about energy use becomes available to customers, we need to help people understand how that data can help them meet their goals – whether it is to reduce their energy footprint, their bills or both. We must also accommodate customers’ desire for a ‘set it and forget it’ solution. Our goal is a smart system that uses customers’ data to minimize their energy use, lower their bills and decrease their carbon footprint.”
To that end, CCE-Tompkins is working to educate the community about how the technology works and the advantages it offers. Cornell’s Division of Human Resources is making a similar effort to educate university faculty and staff, who comprise roughly one-third of the Energy Smart Community footprint.
“I look at Tompkins County as providing the inspiration and context for all of this to happen,” said Sharon Anderson, environment team leader with CCE-Tompkins. “Just as Cornell’s reputation as a research institution was critical to having Tompkins County chosen for this program, so is Tompkins County a statewide leader for thinking critically and innovatively about how we make changes to our use and our production in energy.”
The new systems will give consumers the option in May to transition from flat-rate to time-of-use pricing, in which residents pay less for using energy during off-peak hours, an option that could benefit the most financially vulnerable people as well as the environment. Cowen’s team has been studying how residential batteries might automatically store energy when electricity prices are low for use at a later time, resulting in lower bills and a smaller carbon footprint. This will also reduce use of the oldest, dirtiest power plants to meet peak power needs.
“Public-private collaborations are essential to finding solutions to complex challenges like energy sustainability,” said David Lodge, the Francis J. DiSalvo director of the Atkinson Center. “It’s exciting to see New York leading the way with its Reforming the Energy Vision and Cornell helping to move that vision forward with projects like this one, starting right here in Tompkins County.”
After launching in Tompkins County, the Energy Smart Community prototype will expand to 1.4 million customers served by NYSEG and Rochester Gas and Electric – also owned by Avangrid – as early as 2019. The program has the potential to go international: Avangrid’s owner is, Iberdrola, a Spain-based multinational that operates on three continents, making Tompkins County the template for Iberdrola’s utilities as it seeks to understand the future of smart energy grids, Cowen said.
Kate Frazer is a freelance journalist working with the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.