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The smartest ideas in energy

Co-op staff provide useful advice for how to use technology

When people ask me, “What’s the best new technology to help me use less energy?” they expect me to recommend a particular consumer product, some cool, trendy, smart gadget that will be amazing. As it turns out, the best choice isn’t a thing at all—it’s people.

The people I have in mind are the friendly, tech-savvy—and yes, very smart—folks at your local electric co-op. They’re devoting their work lives to helping members make good energy decisions. From member services to the accounting department to energy advisors, each person is ready to share all kinds of information and tools you can use right away to get the best value for every dollar you spend on energy.

You can think of them as part of your personal energy team. Working together to achieve goals has always been a guiding principle among electric cooperatives–and it’s even more important in today’s changing energy world. This month we’ll take a look at new trends and tech tools your co-op offers to help you use energy wisely.

How prepaid electricity saves energy
Two years ago, South Kentucky Rural Electric Cooperative, the largest co-op in the state serving more than 66,000 members in 11 Kentucky counties and two Tennessee counties, began offering prepaid electricity accounts to members as a budgeting tool.

Kendra Baker, Somerset Service Center supervisor for South Kentucky RECC, says, “This is an important service to offer to our members because it gives them a choice. Some people receive a weekly paycheck, some once a month, and for others it varies. Instead of paying a large deposit and then being billed at the end of the month, prepay gives them another option, to pay for electricity ahead of time as they have money available.” For others, it also helps members avoid late payment charges or the risk of disconnection.

But prepay is not just about dollars and cents. It’s also about information. Included with the program is a daily notification system (typically by text message or e-mail, with an app for smartphones, too) that shows exactly how much electricity was used the previous day, the total billing amount, and the remaining balance in the member’s account. Reminders to add more money to the account occur at preset intervals. About 2,500 South Kentucky Co-op members are using prepay to manage their energy dollars.

But they’re also using it to manage their energy use. Alan Coffey, manager of Member Services at South Kentucky RECC, says, “Statistics show that people using prepay often reduce their energy consumption by 10 percent or more. Instead of having no idea how much electricity is going through the meter, each day prepay members receive a text message that says ‘You used this many kilowatts yesterday.’ The reaction to that is often, ‘Wow! That’s a bit much!’ and they’ll look for things like TVs left on when no one’s watching, and make immediate adjustments.”

Free information, trustworthy advice
Brent Gilkey, vice president of Member Services and Com-munications at Pennyrile Electric in Hopkinsville, has seen a similar effect among the 1,300 members who’ve signed up for prepaid electricity during the last three years at this western Kentucky co-op. But he also notes that customers with traditional accounts have easy access to their energy consumption information, too.

Gilkey says, “Anybody can download our app to use on a smartphone, or use the portal on our Web site, to see their household’s daily energy use. Our meters update the account once every 24 hours, and the display includes an overlay with weather information about heating degree-days or cooling degree-days, whatever the season is. Our goal is to provide our members with the most accurate and up-to-date information about their usage because we believe this will help them manage their usage better.”

While comparing numbers is a smart step, Gilkey points out that Pennyrile Electric and all co-ops throughout the state also offer another valuable resource–people who can help members put those numbers to good use. “Every situation is different, no two houses are the same,” Gilkey says. “We have experienced people who can give our co-op members information about dollars and cents over the short, medium, and long term, considering their particular house and their needs. We can help a co-op member see the effect of doing one thing versus doing another thing, or buying one product instead of another, so they can make a good decision.”

In north-central Kentucky, Whitney Prather Duvall, manager of Communications at Owen Electric Cooperative, says, “We’ve seen a lot of interest in our BillingInsights tool that we offer online as people try out new ‘smart’ gadgets that are available at home improvement stores and other retailers. To make those devices even more useful, we continue to promote the benefits of the free energy audit we offer. Regardless of the technology within your home, the real improvements members are able to make by adding insulation or sealing air leaks are what really make the leaps and bounds difference in home energy use that apps and various smart home programs monitor.”

How “smart” is that gadget?
Whether you’re looking at a whole-house energy management device, a remote-control timer for your porch light, or any other gadget connected to the Internet, be sure to check out these features before you purchase:
• Does the gadget speak the same kind of computer language as the other devices in your home?
• Will you be able to control it from your smartphone, computer, or both? Can you over-ride it using manual switches?
• How powerful is your in-home Wi-Fi service?

Nancy Grant from March 2016 Issue

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