Technology shifts power to consumers in electricity markets


As technology progesses in the energy and electricity markets, consumers are garnering more control of their usage.

The Bloomberg New Energy Finance report, which looks at the future of the world's power market, predicts that solar electricity production will grow exponentially in the next 25, and most of that production will come in the form of small-scale or rooftop solar systems.

Most small-scale solar installations — including those in Pennsylvania — are grid-tied, meaning the energy produced by the panels when the sun in shining goes through a meter and back into the grid for everybody to use.

The meter tracks the kilowatts produced for the grid, and the user's electricity bill is adjusted. In some cases, the user consumes less energy than his or her unit produces, and utility sends a check.

Power to the People: Scott DeBroff, a Central Pennsylvania lawyer who represents three of the four largest metering manufacturers in the U.S., has seen the meter technology make great strides in the past five years.

"They're like little computers now," he said. "From a customer perspective, you can tell what you're using and how to better use your energy."

DeBroff said there are plans in place for utilities to deploy this advanced metering technology throughout the region.

The meters aren't the only advancements in technology that's leading to more consumer control, though. Home battery units are starting to receive national attention since Tesla Motors' unveiling of Powerwall, which stores electricity generated from solar panels or the grid when rates are low to use during peak hours when demand is high.

While Tesla has received the most media attention, DeBroff said this technology is not a new idea and numerous other companies worldwide are working on products with similar capabilities.

The home batteries aren't widely used in Central Pennsylvania homes, if at all, according to Shipley spokesman Bob Astor, who believes the mentality of home owners would have to change for the technology to become relevant locally.

The battery is another piece of equipment with a large upfront cost for a consumer base that's showed little dissatisfaction with how it currently receives electricity, Astor said.

DeBroff said he believes the price of these units will drop, just as they're currently dropping for solar panels, as companies flood the market with product.

Jeff Georg, president of electrical contracting company Ascom Inc., said the advancement of home battery units comes down to how manufacturers want to sell it to the public.

"What do battery manufacturers want to do?" Georg asked. "Sell you a million batteries over your lifetime or one that lasts your lifetime? And can a consumer even afford one battery that lasts a lifetime? If I walked into a store and saw a $1,000 battery sitting on the shelf, I'm not buying it, and the marketers know that."

Still, battery storage technology factored into Bloomberg's report, which also predicted that growth in global electricity demand would slow during the next 25 years and even decline in wealthy, developed countries — including the United States — because of advancements in energy efficiency measures.

Seb Henbest, lead author of the study which combined the expertise of more than 65 technology experts across 11 countries, cited the rise of LED light bulbs — which can reduce electricity consumption by more than 80 percent — as an example.

Henbest said that part of the report was difficult to predict going forward, but their research showed patterns to suggest that as countries develop, they can power more technology with less electricity.

"There's a lot of uncertainty, but the old relationship of GDP going up meaning electricity consumption rising in demand is certainly not the same," Henbest said.

Astor believes, even as efficiency rapidly improves, Americans will just find new ways to "plug in."

"The power companies are for-profit companies, so they'll go find a way to build a market," Astor said, pointing to the expected rise of electric cars. "They're not just going to let their share of the market go away."

Choosing: Utility companies and electricity providers, such as Adams Electric Cooperative, are also taking steps toward conservation and greater customer control.

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission hosts the PAPowerSwitch program online, which gives consumers all the information needed to make an informed choice on their electricity provider, according to commission spokesman Nils Hagen-Frederiksen.

As of June, more than 34 percent of residential customers chose their own power supplier using this information in 2015, compared to less than 16 percent in 2011, according to company reports.

Adams Electric hosts a load control program called "You Shift, You Save," which offers savings and incentives to consumers willing to use less energy during peak hours.

Spokesman Duana Kanagy said other co-ops and utilities had similar programs.

But DeBroff warns that, despite regulations forcing utilities to promote efficiency programs and encouraging customers to reduce usage, utilities don't really care how much energy its customers use.

"They're just passing on the costs of generation to you from the wholesale market at whatever price they get it," DeBroff said. "There's no incentive for them to find ways to get you to conserve your usage."

—Reach David Weissman at