CU’s SmartHouse

When Chancellor Phil DiStefano and his wife Yvonne moved into their residence in July 2009, Xcel was already well into the process of making the home the first-ever Deluxe SmartHouse. Xcel chose Boulder as the location for the new SmartGrid program, and over the past few years has already made major progress in implementing the new technology throughout the city and in residential homes as well, said Tom Henley, Xcel spokesperson.

Xcel began incorporating technology into the home to work in conjunction with its new SmartGrid technology almost two years ago, Yvonne DiStefano said. “It was August of 2008 and we were the first house in Boulder,” Yvonne DiStefano said. “So they came in, Xcel invested and put all of this stuff in at their cost.”

Some of the changes to the 6,600 square-foot home include two sets of solar panels on the roof, new wiring to allow for digital communication between the home and Xcel, charging capability for the DiStefano’s hybrid car and a back-up battery capable of powering the home in case of a power outage.

The two sets of solar panels collect solar energy and store it in the home’s back-up battery to be used in case of a power outage or to be returned to Xcel. “When we have typical sunny days, we can have three-and-a-half days’ worth of power stored from the sun,” Yvonne DiStefano said.

The back-up battery fixes power outages so quickly that they are unnoticeable. “Our outages are like blips,” Yvonne DiStefano said. “Xcel takes care of them so quickly. If it’s just an interruption, it’s interrupted and it’s fixed.”

When returning the solar energy that they have saved, Yvonne DiStefano said Xcel does not offer financial reimbursement, but rather the energy can lighten the energy demand for the entire city. “They’ll never pay you for it, but you give it back and that lessens the demand for energy from other people, for Xcel,” she said.  “You help Xcel, they help you, and if everyone’s doing it, we’d save a lot of energy.”

Chancellor DiStefano said that for the month of February, the home’s solar panels collected solar energy equivalent to $27 worth of energy purchased from the electrical grid, and as a result, this energy was returned to the city’s electrical grid and $27 was taken off their electric bill.

“We’ve saved about $27 from our electric bill because of solar,” Chancellor DiStefano said. “What you want to do is multiply this by a thousand homes and not just one.” The ability to view the amount of energy their home is both using and producing from the solar panels is accessible to Chancellor DiStefano and his wife through an online program called GridPoint.

The GridPoint program allows for practically up-to-the-minute updates, says Mrs. DiStefano. The program not only uses bar graphs, pie charts and tables to display the homes energy usage, but also allows the DiStefanos to adjust the heating and air conditioning settings and the time they prefer to charge their hybrid.

Chancellor DiStefano said he and his wife set the program seasonally and adjust it when they travel. “With travel, if we’re gone for a weekend or longer periods, we can just shut the heat down to say the low 60’s, and before we come back, at the airport get on the computer and set it back up so it’s comfortable,” Chancellor DiStefano said.

The GridPoint software also shows the home’s energy usage in terms that can be understood by a wide range of users. For the last thirty days, the GridPoint software displays that by conserving $27 of energy from solar energy gathered, the DiStefanos have conserved the equivalent of 20.8 gallons of gas, an amount comparable to the removal of 12.8 cars for a day, and enough energy to supply lighting sufficient to play one inning of Major League Baseball, according to Chancellor DiStefano’s GridPoint software program.

Over the past year, the GridPoint software displays the amount of energy gathered from the home’s solar panels has avoided 6,201 pounds of Carbon Dioxide emissions, the amount equal to 200 cars for a day and enough energy to microwave 41,000 microwave pizzas.

Chancellor DiStefano said that his hybrid Ford Escape has been using a significant amount of energy lately because Xcel is working to install new technology that will allow it to hold its charge for longer periods of time.

This is a different car than what we had before, but at some point, it will give back the electricity to Xcel,” Chancellor DiStefano said. “When the new software is installed, it will give energy back.” The ability to give back energy that is unused by the car works similarly to the home’s solar energy in terms of lessening the demand on the electrical grid as a whole, Chancellor DiStefano said.

“The idea again is that you have more and more houses you start saving on a pretty big scale as a community,” Chancellor DiStefano said. “You’re certainly looking at it individually, but you want is the whole city working together.”

The Chancellor said that the technology has made him more energy-conscious overall and that he is looking to find ways to further conserve energy use.

“What I’m most concerned about for Boulder, because we have so many days of sunshine is kind of tracking on when we have four or five really sunny days in a row, I’ll get on the computer to see if we’re actually generating more energy than we’re using,” Chancellor DiStefano said. “That happens, but not frequently and I’d like to figure out how to do more of that.”

Chancellor DiStefano said that next step in progressing toward a smaller carbon footprint is to change the public’s behavioral mindset. “What we have to do is get psychologists from the university to work on changing behavior because that’s the key, is changing people’s behavior,” the Chancellor said.

Chancellor DiStefano said that being the university with the no. 1 environmental studies program, Boulder is the right location for Xcel’s current and future programs. “It makes sense for Xcel, the city and the university to work as partners in reducing the carbon footprint,” the Chancellor said.

By Sarah Simmons on March 31, 2010
sarah.e.simmons@colorado.edu