Knowledge is power. And sometimes less power.
Deb Cieluch, who lives with her two children in Savage, recently cut her electric consumption. It happened after her utility, Minnesota Valley Electric Cooperative, offered her and other customers an energy-tracking Web portal called SmartHub.
The energy information led to a change in the Cieluch household -- she no longer stocks up so heavily on food. Instead, she pulled the plug on an electricity-guzzling freezer in the garage.
"It was almost a dollar a day," said Cieluch, who also is on prepaid utility billing. "I can live without it."
Minnesota is emerging as a leading market for advanced technology to help consumers cut their electric bills. At a time of rising electricity rates, the technology promises ways to closely monitor power consumption and to reduce monthly bills.
At least 20 utilities in the state, mostly cooperatives or municipal power companies, are giving away mobile device apps or offering free Web portals with charts and comparison tools for customers to analyze their own power usage.
"It is a very cost-effective way to get savings," said Josh Headlee, CEO of Accelerated Innovations, a St. Paul company that developed MyMeter, a Web portal and mobile app used by 18 utilities in Minnesota and eight other states.
Another 13 Minnesota power companies plan to offer such services soon. Energy data vendors across the country are focused on the state, including Aclara, Enerlyte, National Information Solutions Cooperative and Opower.
Minnesota Valley, with 34,800 customers, is one of 11 Minnesota electric cooperatives with online energy-monitoring tools. Another is Wright-Hennepin Cooperative Electric Association, with 47,000 customers in the northwest metro area.
"More and more people are wanting to be able to reduce their cost of power," said Mark Vogt, CEO of Wright-Hennepin, which plans to roll out more smart-energy efforts next year.
Although utilities lose revenue by selling less electricity, they benefit by lowering their peak demand, such as on hot summer days. Minnesota also imposes a 1.5 percent annual conservation requirement on utilities, a policy aimed at limiting the need for more power plants.
"Municipal utilities and cooperatives are taking the lead," said S. Massoud Amin, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Minnesota and a leading thinker on what's often called "smart grid'' technology. "They are taking advantage of their smaller scale to deploy smart meters in a customer-focused manner with an emphasis on consumer education."
How it works
The apps and portals rely on data collected by automated electric meters at customers' homes. About 80 percent of Minnesota utility customers already have such meters, though most are not the most-advanced kind known as smart meters.
Utilities began installing automated meters in the 1990s, ending the need for monthly in-person readings. That's now done via wireless or wired data feeds. Some meters read data every 15 minutes, offering a detailed glimpse of power usage.
"This is one of the most important aspects of the smart grid," said Vern Dosch, CEO of the National Information Solutions Cooperative, a St. Louis-based technology cooperative that offers the SmartHub portal and apps to utilities. "We now have the data to begin educating customers on their consumption patterns. That is the first step toward conserving energy."
To access their data, customers must create a login, usually through a link on their utility's Web page. Then consumers can track and compare their power use and set up alerts when usage spikes. Some companies like Arlington, Va.-based Opower also offer home-energy reports by mail.
Xcel Energy Inc., the state's largest power company, has tested mailings with some customers, but does not offer apps and Web tools to its 1.2 million Minnesota customers. The Minneapolis-based utility is studying the technology in a $44 million SmartGridCity project underway at its Colorado subsidiary.
"It is very early in the pilot stage," said Michael Lamb, Xcel's managing director of business systems and assistant chief information officer.
Savings -- and some skeptics
Companies that sell portal technology say customers using it save 1.5 to 2.5 percent on their electric usage by altering their behavior. Not surprisingly, research suggests the biggest energy users benefit most.
Customers pay nothing for the service, but utilities are charged a fee. Accelerated Innovations' rate starts at $1 per customer per year and drops with a utility's size, Headlee said.
"We are just beginning to scratch the surface of how utilities can present information in an engaging way and have customers awakened and become much more interested in energy consumption than they ever have before," added Seth Phillips, CEO of Enerlyte LLC, another energy-tracking company based in Draper, Utah.
Consumer advocates say utilities need to prove that investments in power-usage portals are worth it.
"My fear is that they will spend lots and lots of money on this sort of technology and take resources away from real conservation," said Pam Marshall, executive director of the Energy CENTS Coalition, a St. Paul-based nonprofit. She said she doubts that energy tracking can conserve more than replacing inefficient appliances, for example.
Meanwhile, developers of the technology keep experimenting with features. Some allow customers to share their energy-saving results, and compare their home's usage with similar-sized houses. In April, some Minnesota utilities began offering a Facebook-sharing feature from Opower, hoping to enlist social media to the cause of conservation.
"It didn't pan out," said Dave Thompson, who headed the project for Austin Utilities in southern Minnesota. "Very few people took part in it," and no groups set up competitions to cut consumption, he said.
Some utilities believe the technology can strengthen traditional conservation programs, such as reducing peak demand, or load shifting. Minnesota Power of Duluth, with 146,000 customers, has installed 8,000 smart meters, and offers the MyMeter portal in a pilot project half funded by a $1.5 million U.S. Energy Department grant.
One hope is that online tools will help customers analyze the benefit of shifting some electric use to off-peak hours, such as their hot water heater.
"This is fairly innovative," said Tina Koecher, manager of energy efficiency for the utility. "Load shifting is not new. This is a combination of that concept with newer technology."
David Shaffer • 612-673-7090 Twitter: @ShafferStrib