Austin Energy creating text notification, smartphone programs
Jul 05, 2013 (Austin American-Statesman - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
As the summer heat sets in -- along with higher electric bills -- Austin Energy is preparing computer and smartphone programs to help customers use energy and water more efficiently.
Some time in the next month or so, the city-owned utility will launch a program that alerts a customer that electric use is high enough to kick the household into a higher rate bracket (and cause the monthly bill to jump). The alert could come through a text or an email; the basic idea is to give customers a chance to cut back before the bills are calculated.
Austin Energy is also conducting surveys it will use in creating a smart-phone application. Though a ways off, the app allow a customer to measure how efficiently their home or business is using electricity, suggest ways to improve efficiency without affecting daily routines, and even set reminders to adjust the thermostat, among other functions.
"When you get a bill three weeks after your meter is read, it's kind of hard to change your behavior," said Debbie Kimberly, an Austin Energy vice president overseeing the projects. "This is about putting customers in charge."
The alert (which will cost Austin Energy $55,000) and app are part of a larger Austin Energy effort to transition into the smart-grid era. The over-arching conceits are that the nation must get smarter about how it uses its resources and that technological advances will allow customers to take necessary steps on their end. Smart-grid advocates picture a day when customers can use a phone or other device to, say, remotely program a washing machine to run a load at night, when West Texas wind is often supplying cheap electricity and the demand for it is low.
Some of those ideas are already becoming reality. Austin Energy offers $85 rebates for $250 Nest-brand meters, which allow a user to control the thermostat from a smartphone, among other features. The rebate also requires a customer to allow Austin Energy to turn off the air conditioning for up to 15 minutes during the hottest time of the hottest days to ease demand on the grid.
Austin Energy's rates have also been structured to emphasize conservation and encourage use of smart meters.
Austin Energy is now researching how its customers would use smartphone apps to keep their use from spilling into the higher tiers. Austin Energy asked 2,000 customers to fill out a survey to determine how customers would use an app.
"It's very clear that customers' preferences for communications are changing," Kimberly said. "It's important for us to use the mediums they use."
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