HONOLULU — A 4-square-mile patch of Maui in the nation's most fossil-fuel dependent state soon will be home to a new kind of power grid, one that saves energy by turning off household appliances when electricity is expensive and makes better use of wind and solar power.
General Electric Co. recently announced it would test its "smart grid" technology in the luxury resort community of Wailea, hoping to reduce peak electricity consumption there by 15 percent by 2012.
Planners envision installing a new kind of power meter in homes — a wall-based unit that can monitor how much electricity is being used by various appliances and turn them off at peak times during the day or night when demand for energy is higher, and thus costlier to consume. The project also would upgrade the utility's computer systems so that it can integrate more renewable energy.
There are about 70 smart grid pilots nationwide, including Miami, Seattle, Houston and Boulder, Colo. But Wailea is one of the only resort communities where the test is being conducted.
"There's a lot of opportunities for us to improve our knowledge of what's using power, and making it easier for us to shut off the power when we're not around," said Bob Gilligan, vice president for transmission at GE Energy. "Most consumers aren't really aware of how much energy they're using at any time of day."
For example, if customers knew what times electricity was most expensive, they could automatically adjust air conditioning and refrigerator temperatures, or they could choose to delay turning on the dishwasher until power demand drops.
That would save money for power users. It would also reduce the strain on the grid, allowing the electric utility to absorb more renewable energy from wind turbines and solar panels.
Located on the slopes of Haleakala, Wailea was chosen for the smart grid because rapid construction growth in the area and its isolation make it a fertile testing ground, said Peter Rosegg, spokesman for Hawaiian Electric Co., a shareholder-owned utility and the parent of Maui Electric Co.
"Eventually, advanced metering and the smart grid will be all across the country," Rosegg said. "They can learn a lot here on a small, easily manageable grid."