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Can IBM help cut your energy bill?

Big Blue, Whirlpool, Energy Dept. plan "smart" electricity meters for 300 homes in Oregon, Washington state.

Imagine a future in which your electricity meter sends you an e-mail to alert you that your monthly power bill is over budget and then turns down the thermostat automatically.

It's a future that's not too far off for 300 households in Washington state and Oregon who've volunteered to test new "intelligent" power grid technology being developed by IBM, Whirlpool and the U.S. Department of Energy.

IBM and the Department of Energy announced two "GridWise" studies on Tuesday, hailing them as a path to a cleaner, more energy-efficient future for the nation and lower bills for consumers. The main idea behind one of the one-year studies is to alert customers to how much energy they're consuming in real-time prices and prompt them to lower their usage, especially during peak rates.

The Department of Energy, through its Pacific Northwest National Lab, plans to reward participants who shift energy use in response to real-time market pricing with cash.

"In this test, consumers will receive real-time pricing information on their energy usage/costs and can adjust accordingly," IBM said in a statement. "For example, homeowners will be able to set how much they want to spend per month on energy and also be alerted when usage should be modified to defray strain on the grid and save money."

Volunteers are able to override their preprogrammed preferences at any point, the company added.

In the second study, participants will receive a high-tech Sears dryer made by Whirlpool that can sense instability in the power grid and shut off its heating element for a few minutes to conserve energy, while continuing in tumble mode. The consumer would probably never notice the brief shutdown, but the appliances could drastically reduce power demand, IBM said. Power grid instability occurs about once a day, the company added.

The widespread adoption of these technologies across the nation could eventually save consumers up to $80 billion in 20 years by negating the need for the construction of new transmission substations and other power distribution equipment, IBM Research's Ron Ambrosio said during a teleconference with reporters.

The Department of Energy plans to spend $1.5 million on the project, and IBM is donating software, equipment and services.

Specifically, IBM is supplying its WebSphere Application Servers, which will translate and shuttle data between real-time pricing systems and "smart" meters and appliances in consumers' homes. The company is also acting as an overall system architect and integrator on the project.

The Energy Department selected volunteers for the studies from within Washington states' Olympic Peninsula, located west of Seattle, and in the towns of Yakima, Wash., and Gresham, Ore.

"Washington was selected as the test bed based on the fact that the Northwest region of the National Grid is under serious strain due to large population and industrial growth," IBM said in a statement.