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IBM's North Carolina smart-grid trial shaves power

Electricity use drops by an average of 15 percent in a pilot test of a smart-grid system among 100 commercial and business customers.

Data from a smart-grid pilot project which uses smart meters and wireless appliance controllers shows that such a system can cut electricity use by 15 percent on average.

IBM and Consert have been running the project in Fayetteville, N.C., for the last six months and published the initial findings on Monday. On Tuesday, the GridWeek conference on the smart grid is scheduled to begin in Washington D.C.

The term "smart grid" can mean different things to different people, but the pilot test in North Carolina provides a picture of smart-grid technologies in the home.

Buildings were equipped with wireless smart meter and controllers for the major appliances in the home, such as dishwasher and HVAC systems. These devices communicate with a digital thermostat. A gateway can send information to the utility over a 3G wireless connection supplied by Verizon.

The set-up allows people to see via a PC how much electricity they are consuming and to create a "profile" to improve efficiency. For example, a person can program the cooling system or hot water heater to turn off when people aren't in the home.

In some instances, customers were able to cut electricity consumption by 40 percent, according IBM and Consert. Consumers can also chose to participate in the utility's demand response program where devices, such as a clothes dryer, are turned down for a few minutes during peak times.

The energy-savings from the pilot test are consistent with other smart-grid projects. Many people are able to make adjustments to their home energy use simply by viewing real-time data which might spotlight a big energy user, such as a pool pump. Typically, tools to program home appliances are necessary to get deeper cuts in energy use, experts say