Oklahoma Stimulus Dollars Making Energy System Smarter

Thursday, September 16th 2010, 9:54 pm
By: News On 6

By Amy Lester, Oklahoma Impact Team

OKLAHOMA CITY -- An Oklahoma energy company is cashing in when it comes to stimulus dollars. OG&E received a grant for $130 million. That money has created 72 jobs.

"It was a good fit for Oklahoma," said Sandra Longcrier, manager of OG&E's communications smart grid. "When we heard about the grant, we thought it was an excellent opportunity to bring some value to our customers."

The money will go toward smart meters and infrastructure for the company's 700,000 customers in Oklahoma. About 3,200 customers are already testing out the technology in Norman.

"That's provided us a savings of over $400 this summer," said Norman resident Diane Murphree. "I was delighted, I was like, whoa, that's the lowest it's been in the summertime in a long time."

Murphree is using the technology to save money. The smart meter communicates with her thermostat to tell her the current price of electricity. OG&E sends her a text message telling her the price of electricity 24 hours in advance, so she can set her thermostat accordingly. Her energy rate is based on when she uses power and how much she uses. The peak hours are between 2-7 PM on weekdays. Murphree conserves during those hours to save money. She can also track her use online and see how much she's spending, long before the bill arrives.

"I see this over the long term as really saving us thousands of dollars a year in our energy expense," said Murphree.

Administrators at the Norman School District are seeing similar results. The district saved $15,000 in June and July.

"That's certainly beneficial, as you know, in this time of budget shortfalls for education. You know, as much money as you can save with energy, that just helps your school district and your students," said Roger Brown, Assistant Superintendent of Administrative Services for the Norman School District.

Administrators bump the temperature up in the afternoon, when the price is higher.

"This allows you to use that real time information to make decisions that are good for you," said Brown.

Switching to smart meters is not cheap. The whole project will cost $366 million dollars. OG&E is using $130 million from federal stimulus dollars. You're paying for the rest. OG&E is charging customers $1.56 a month, for 42 months, to pay for the project.

"My largest concern was just in general, in a downturn economy, any cost and impact to customers," said Corporation Commissioner Dana Murphy.

Murphy voted against part of the plan. She did not agree with the company's request to charge customers now to collect all of the money for the smart meters. She wanted OG&E to phase the meters in, ensuring first that the equipment works like it's supposed to and that the projected savings will pan out.

"Then, if we encountered any big problem, we hadn't already just had all of the money expended and we could maybe make some adjustments or kind of stop to see if this was really the thing we needed to do," said Murphy.

Murphy also said there was pressure on the commission to approve the whole project, now, because the stimulus dollars need to be spent by the end of 2012. The other two commissioners voted for the project, so it passed.

"I think the stimulus money helped really drive this thing faster. I think it would've taken longer without the stimulus money," Murphy said.

Click here to read the Corporation Commission's ruling

While shooting our story, we did notice some problems with OG&E's system for smart grid study customers. Sometimes, display units to see energy use don't operate completely and the energy tracking website doesn't always connect.

OG&E spokesperson, Sandra Longcrier said, "It's a study and sometimes, the technology is right on and sometimes it needs to be tweaked as they say."

Of the first 42,000 customers with smart meters, OG&E said four complained about inaccurate readings. OG&E insisted everything will be tweaked and completely working before this is available system wide.

Click here to learn more about OG&E's Smart Grid program