Consumers keeping a closer eye on electricity prices will be key to reducing consumption.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Correspondent Brian Rogal is covering the Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance conference in Chicago. Click here for a complete archive of his posts.

One of the big questions hovering over the conference is how stakeholders can ramp up existing energy efficiency programs to have a deeper impact. The success of EE initiatives is frequently judged based on whether they cut energy use by one or two percentage points.

Peter Millburg of Ameren Illinois, which supplies power to customers in Southern Illinois, told conference goers in one afternoon session that it’s difficult to slice off even that much. His utility has had a pilot program for a couple of years that offers residential customers hourly pricing of their electricity. The hope was that they would cut their use during the more expensive hours and also lower their overall use.

It worked, he said, but “not maybe in the way you might think.”

Company officials saw a significant reduction during the summer, over 5 percent, but unfortunately, most of that reduction was wiped out by an increased energy use in the winter. Overall, the program reduced electricity consumption by 1.9% in 2008 and 1.2% in 2009.

Still, Millburg sees hope in that number. He believes utilities can cut energy use even more when pushing these pilot programs out to a wider customer base. For example, this type of “smart pricing” program could have a major impact when new technologies such as electric cars come online. Most electric car buyers are expected to charge their vehicles in the wee hours as they sleep, a time when electricity is at a surplus and very inexpensive. However, that all depends on how, or perhaps if, the electric car industry develops in the U.S.

In any case, Millburg said, the strategy is to keep fine tuning these programs and build good data sets on all the results, even if power suppliers haven’t yet achieved deep cuts in energy use. This will ensure utilities are ready to take advantage of any major shift in consumer technology such as electric cars.

“What shape that’s going to take, your guess is as good as mine,” he said.

Photo by lopolis via Creative Commons