Demand response pilot program

This summer, I was part of a pilot “real-time” residential demand response program. The program’s success is described in a recent article, but I thought it would be helpful to give it some personal color. Unlike a direct load control program where the utility pays me for the right to cycle my air conditioning during times of peak power demand, this plan “warns” me that a peak time is coming and offers me money for not using as much air conditioning on those days. Before really hot summer days, I get an email warning me that tomorrow will be a “peak savings day”.  If I cut my energy use during this time, I earn $1.25 for every kilowatt-hour I save relative to a benchmark determined by my prior average electricity usage. The warning is repeated right before the start of the event.

The program actually got me excited about saving power, and it’s a game to see how much I earn. In the traditional demand response programs, the utility takes over and cycles the air conditioning in participating households as needed, with every household getting the same $50 or $100 for participating.  By putting the power in the consumer’s hand, the experiment plays on my gaming instinct. Overall, I’m convinced the program works and may well be the future of residential demand response…But I did encounter some pitfalls and many unanswered questions – read on to see what happened:

  • Day 1 – July 10: I earned $10.63 barely doing anything to my thermostat, yeah! In retrospect, this must have been a “test day”. The maximum temperature at Baltimore airport was only 88 degrees, nothing to sweat about in steamy Mid-Atlantic summer heat. I’m left pondering why I earned anything on a day that was after all perfectly normal?
  • Day 2 – July 17: My best day, I earned $21.75. The maximum temperature was 96. Following textbook procedure, I pre-cooled the house in the morning, then set the thermostat to 85 at 2pm and went to the office, leaving husband, child and babysitter to suffer. I gave the babysitter some ice cream money with instructions to go out for a cone if the house got too hot. That worked, but by 3:30pm I received a text from my husband that I shall not reproduce on this site - the whole pre-cooling thing didn’t help much after all. As a side effect of the abnormally high house temperature, my kitchen compost pail started smelling particularly bad, which didn’t help my husband’s mood for the day. Was that really worth $20?
  • Day 3 – July 18: $12.63. Fatigue comes very quickly with this type of program: my husband refuses to go along for another sweltering experiment. I set the thermostat to a much more tolerable level while the outside temperature reaches 97 degrees, but I still made money! This leaves me very confused about how that benchmark is calculated.
  • July 19, it’s still 96 degrees, why no alert?
  • Day 4 – Sept 11: The only day this summer when the grid teetered on the edge of disaster. Unprepared for 95 degrees in September, the grid operator (PJM) was forced to cut power to tens of thousands of customers, some for as long as seven hours. Working from home with my husband travelling and child in school, I decided to subject myself to the 85-degree house experiment. I found the heat quite tolerable, and earned $9.13. It turns out  my benchmark has changed! The program no longer assumes that I use 24kwh/day, but only 22kwh - I feel cheated of the free latte those extra savings would have earned me. Is it because I was on vacation prior to the event? Or because the benchmark is based on the season? Either way, it feels unfair given that I did my part to avoid a blackout

Total for the season: $54.14 minus the ice cream money. Granted, it was a pretty mild summer - so maybe that’s all I deserve…but the $100 payment for direct load control seems like a better deal.

Photo Credit: Demand Response/shutterstock