EVERETT — Snohomish County PUD is rolling out three new pilot programs Monday that one day could help the agency achieve a portfolio of 100% clean energy.
For customers who sign up for the voluntary programs called FlexEnergy, it’ll mean changing habits when demand for electricity is at its greatest, particularly during the winter.
Instead of cranking up the heat when they get home, maybe customers can keep the house a few degrees colder. The dishes and laundry can wait a bit. And for owners of electric vehicles, those can charge overnight.
Right now, most of the energy from the PUD is renewable, mostly in the form of hydropower. But during peak usage, there isn’t enough local energy to meet the demand, so the PUD has to go to the market to buy more. Often, that supplemental electricity can come from fossil fuels, like coal or natural gas, since power generated by wind or solar isn’t as prevalent in the dark winter months.
Peak usage typically takes place before and after work, and creates the most strain on the electrical grid on the coldest days of the year. Between 2015 and 2019, PUD spent on average nearly $15 million a year to buy energy from the marketplace. More than 20% of those purchases are made to provide electricity between 5 and 9 p.m. And nearly 40% of those purchases are made between November and February.
The district serves more than 355,000 customers in Snohomish County and on Camano Island.
Technology and market advancements may eventually allow the PUD to forego buying dirty electricity. In the meantime, PUD leaders hope changing customer habits can help achieve state goals.
In 2019, state lawmakers passed the Clean Energy Transformation Act, requiring utilities to remove fossil fuels from their portfolios. The law sets a goal for utilities to eliminate coal power by 2025, become carbon neutral by 2030, and completely carbon free by 2045.
The three pilot programs being offered by Snohomish County PUD are called FlexTime, FlexPeak and FlexResponse.
FlexTime will offer rates over 20% cheaper during nights, weekends and holidays. During the winter months, higher rates would be charged during times of peak usage — between 7 and 10 a.m., and from 5 to 8 p.m. In the first year, customers can get rebates for any extra costs beyond what they would have accrued normally.
Under FlexPeak, customers will get 10% off their energy rates, but will be charged more during peak events. They’ll receive texts alerting them to upcoming peak events, so they can avoid those extra costs. Those alerts won’t happen more than 15 times in a winter season, and will be no longer than four hours.
FlexResponse customers also will receive texts alerting them to upcoming peak events. If they make a “good faith effort” to participate in reducing their energy use during those events, they can earn an annual bill credit.
The PUD expects to have about 2,000 customers for the pilot programs. More information about those programs can be found at snopud.com/flexenergy.
FlexEnergy isn’t a new or exotic idea, PUD spokesperson Aaron Swaney said. Utilities across the nation have started their own time-of-day rate programs, and have seen some success.
He pointed to the example of Sacramento Municipal Utility District, which started its program in 2019. According to the utility’s website, customers have saved 12,800 tonnes of carbon dioxide — equivalent to taking 4,200 cars off the road.
Swaney acknowledged that it may take a bit for Snohomish County customers to learn their way around a new rate structure, and learn the tips and tricks to save money.
“Our customers are not used to this,” Swaney said. “We have given them a standard rate for years. It’s 10.4 cents per kilowatt hour — in the summer, in the winter, in the early morning, in the night.”
Swaney noted that people who work odd hours will have an advantage, since they likely already use power outside of the normal times.
The pilot programs will take advantage of customers who have “smart thermostats” or electric vehicle charging stations. Qualifying products include the Google Nest and ecobee smart thermostats, as well as the ChargePoint and Enel X vehicle chargers.
For those who don’t have those products, the PUD can provide customers with an advanced meter that records data every 15 minutes. Those aren’t smart meters, which can actively send out information. Like current meters, a PUD worker will come by once a month to collect the data.
For now, the pilot programs offer a chance to figure out how people respond to various incentives and pricing schemes.
“It’s really a learning opportunity for us,” Swaney said.