MICHELE NORRIS, host:
All this week we're looking at the challenges of upgrading the U.S. electrical grid to meet the demands of a new era of clean energy. One part of the grid that really needs to be modernized is the electric meter right outside your home. President Obama wants to turn it into a smart meter. It would track your electricity usage and it would help you and your utility manage how much energy you use. The president's stimulus package provides money to help install 40 million meters in homes across the country. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren visited one city that already has smart meters - Allentown, Pennsylvania - but she learned that meters alone are not enough.
ELIZABETH SHOGREN: When Tammy Yeakel(ph) made up here wish list for her 44th birthday, what she really wanted was a storm door. And on those rare quiet moments when her four-year-old twins are out of the house, this stay-at-home mom indulges in an unlikely obsession.
Ms. TAMMY YEAKEL: I love this site.
SHOGREN: She's talking about a Web site run by her electric company, PPL Corporation.
Ms. YEAKEL: I called PPL and said did you design this just for me because I'm one of these people who love to know where my dollar is going and how can I save.
SHOGREN: When PPL installed the smart meter on her house several years ago, Yeakel didn't notice, but when the company launched this Web site to help customers use the information from the meters to save energy, it inspired the passionate kilowatt pincher lurking inside of her.
Ms. YEAKEL: I went around with foam insulation and where I could see leaks outside from my basement, I squirt them.
SHOGREN: She got that storm door. She switched to compact fluorescent light bulbs and she keeps going back to the Web site for more energy-saving tips. Her electric bills are about 20 percent cheaper than they used to be and according to the Web site she is beating the competition.
Ms. YEAKEL: This is one of my favorite things - how does my home compare to similar homes in my area and I'm always a $100 - about $120 less than everybody so that's kind of neat. That's like vacation.
SHOGREN: Yeakel's experience confirms what PPL and other electric companies are learning. Smart meters can help save power, but only if customers have access to a Web site or digital display that helps them track and manage their energy use. So far only about five percent of Americans have smart meters. Even with $4 billion in stimulus money for smart grid investments, experts estimate it will take five to ten years before half the country has advanced meters and even longer before most residents have devices or Web sites to help them analyze their energy use and cut back the way Tammy Yeakel has.
Today, Tom Stathos(ph) from the electric company is looking over Yeakel's shoulder as she taps away. The smart meters on PPL customers' houses measure their hourly, daily and monthly energy use and send it to PPL. The power company provides that information to customers in charts and graphs on this Web site. Stathos notices that Yeakel's electricity use surges upwards around 8 PM.
Mr. TOM STATHOS: I don't know what that peak is over there but that might be something that if she could move it…
Ms. YEAKEL: My husband comes home.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SHOGREN: And what does he do when he comes home?
Ms. YEAKEL: Oh, television, lights are on, doors are open. We're always behind him turning everything off.
SHOGREN: Stathos says, so far Yeakel's unusual. Overall PPL customers use 20 percent more electricity than they did 20 years ago. Many people don't realize that charging iPods and cell phones adds to their electric bills. And some new products like flat screen plasma televisions are electricity hogs even when they're not being used. But Stathos says as his customers learn more about their energy use, they can follow Yeakel's example and save. He says it's all possible because of smart meters. So we go outside to see Yeakel's meter. It's near her neighbor's noisy heat pump.
Mr. STATHOS: The meter is the absolute direct connection with the customer. This is definitely the start of a smart grid.
SHOGREN: With information from the smart meter, PPL is able to launch a new pricing program. It's offering two rates, one during times of peak energy use and a cheaper off-peak price. The company hopes this encourages customers to use less power when electricity is priciest, because even the most expensive power plants are online. And Stathos says that's just a beginning.
Mr. STATHOS: And I've got some brainstorms about the things I'd really like to do - sitting on my easy chair with a little console there that, you know, in addition to helping me change the channel on my television will show me right at the moment how much energy I'm using and you know what I can scale back a little bit on that thermostat. I don't think that's far fetched.
SHOGREN: Some electric companies say neither is the idea that they'll soon be using smart technologies to reach into their customers' homes and actually turn thermostats up or down, change settings on water heaters or tell refrigerators not to defrost. But for any of this smart technology to have the impact President Obama wants, it will take more than the devices. It will take millions of people with the enthusiasm of Tammy Yeakel.
Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.
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