Friday, Feb. 20, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
During the hottest days of summer, temperatures in the desert Southwest are among the highest of any inhabited place on earth. Residents crank up the air conditioning, forcing utility companies to import electricity from expensive sources. An inability to meet demand could result in rolling blackouts.
Now, with an eye toward easing the strain on power grids, UNLV researchers are collaborating with NV Energy and Pulte Homes on Villa Trieste, a Summerlin community of power-saving houses. The goal is to build a subdivision whose demand for power at “peak hours” — 1-7 p.m. in summer — is at least 65 percent less than that of a typical Southern Nevada neighborhood.
The first Villa Trieste residents are expected to move into some of its 185 planned homes in April. Each house, priced in the low- to mid-$200,000s, will come with energy-efficient lighting and appliances, photovoltaic arrays to generate electricity, and strong insulation to prevent cooled or heated air from escaping.
The Las Vegas team hopes to reduce energy demand in part by allowing consumers to monitor their energy use and by offering them incentives such as rebates for cutting consumption during designated hours. UNLV research will help NV Energy determine what incentive programs to put in place.
The project, funded by an approximately $7 million grant from the Energy Department, is an example of the type of work that could enhance UNLV’s reputation as a research institution. The process for obtaining federal money was competitive, pitting the Las Vegas team against other groups with proposals for reducing energy demand.
“Universities nationwide have been accused of doing pure research without application, without transformational power to help the environment or help people,” said UNLV Vice President of Research Ron Smith. “This is a good example of where the businesses and university can tie their expertise together and come up with something positive for people.”
Cutting peak-hour consumption in the Southwest is a priority because when demand for power spikes each summer, utility companies buy energy from old plants that are inefficient and costly to operate. Over time, these purchases push up energy prices for consumers.
Bob Boehm, director of UNLV’s Center for Energy Research and the principal investigator on the Villa Trieste project, expects the homes’ eco-friendly design features to reduce the amount of power they draw from NV Energy by about 60 percent.
The Energy Department grant will pay for a battery system that will be charged during off-peak hours, providing Villa Trieste with electricity during peak hours.
To predict how much energy Villa Trieste will use and produce at different times of day, UNLV researchers will run computer simulations that take into account factors including the weather and the direction solar panels on each house face. Information gleaned from these models will help NV Energy decide which incentives to pitch to Villa Trieste residents to encourage them to reduce peak-time electricity use, Boehm says. The simulations, for example, could forecast how much demand would fall if a certain percentage of homeowners opted into an incentive program.
Students will be involved in building and running the computer models, as well as other aspects of the project. The federal grant will pay the students’ wages.
So residents can measure their energy consumption, each house at Villa Trieste will include an advanced meter showing power use at different times of day. A communication system will allow NV Energy to contact homeowners with current information on the cost of electricity and offer them deals such as the peak-hour rebates. Such rebate programs do not yet exist, but the advanced meters, which would allow the utility to measure exact power savings and pay consumers accordingly, would make the programs possible.
The utility already allows homeowners to choose a pricing plan that charges more for electricity during peak hours. Under that schedule, rates for off-peak times are lower than normal.
“We’re trying to teach consumers that it really matters,” said Greg Kern, NV Energy’s director of customer renewable generation and energy efficiency. “In the heart of summer, in Las Vegas, energy is expensive because every plant that can run is running.”
How well consumers will respond to financial incentives to reduce energy use remains a question. Chris Bremseth, 35, one of the researchers’ first guinea pigs, thinks “those incentives definitely will work.”
Bremseth, who purchased a Villa Trieste home with his wife, says, “The bottom line is we’re concerned about utility costs, we’re very conscious of how much energy we use and we want to reduce our carbon footprint. If there’s areas where we could see we could make some reductions we would definitely do that.”
All told, Boehm hopes that financial incentives for reducing energy consumption, combined with the battery and smart home design, will cut Villa Trieste’s demand for power from the grid during peak times by as much as 90 percent compared with a Las Vegas neighborhood built only to code.