Northeast US a smart energy testing ground

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By Elisa Wood

August 19, 2010

Ben Franklin’s saying, “Out of adversity comes opportunity” seems to characterize the energy sector in US Northeast. Electricity rates are among the nation’s highest. Population density leaves scant room for new power plants and transmission lines.  And the region has little indigenous generation fuel.

So what’s the good news?

“This is why a very large and well spent push for energy efficiency and energy conservation has taken place in the Northeast,” says Ron Tabroff member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and former chairman of its Power & Energy Society, Boston Chapter.

In fact, the Northeastern states make up a large portion of a thriving East Coast energy efficiency market, spurred by about  $8.6 billion in incentives being distributed by utilities and state and local governments, according to “Energy Efficiency Incentives for Businesses 2010: Eastern States” by RealEnergyWriters.

IEEE is an organization known for its love of technological advancement – it publishes nearly a third of the world’s technical literature in electrical engineering, computer science and electronics. So it is little surprise that IEEE has a keen eye on the emerging smart grid and the new openings it creates for energy efficiency.

Real-time meters, appliances that ‘talk’ to the grid, and other smart applications offer both macro and micro remedies to the kind of strain and high prices faced by the Northeast electric grid, Tabroff says.

On the macro level, if these devices curb peak usage of electricity, they should result in less need to build and operate expensive peaking generators. That means less pressure to raise electricity rates, now up to 19.4 cents/kWh for households in Connecticut, the Northeast state with the highest rates and second in the nation to only Hawaii.

On the micro level, the consumer will have the ability for the first time to purchase electricity on sale. Digital displays placed in the home will reveal the ups and downs in electricity pricing over the course of the day.  You can choose to do your laundry when it’s cheap, or cut back on air conditioning when electricity prices are high.

Smart meters are now making their way into Northeast households through pilot programs. A big question to be answered is whether or not people will take the time in their busy lives to act as personal electricity managers. Tabroff is confident consumers will as they “make the link between these devices and their electricity bill.”

And if they do not, no worries. Down the road, technology geeks are figuring out how to solve that one too.  The next wave of smart electrical devices will act as our personal electricity shoppers. These include refrigerators programmed to defrost when electricity prices are cheap and dishwashers instructed not to turn on until the electric grid offers up a good deal.

The opportunity is great for engineers and energy service companies in the Northeast, where support is strong for new smart energy programs . The large investment the region is making into these technologies make it a testing ground. It’s a region for the world to keep an eye on.

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About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of She has been writing about energy for more than three decades for top industry publications. Her work also has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.