Pepco announced this week that it will expand its residential demand response program, Energy Wise Rewards, with Comverge to 300,000 customers across its territory, an increase of 50,000 from the original agreement.

The expanded program will include homes in the District of Columbia and small businesses in Maryland. Currently, there are about 150,000 customers enrolled, with another 100,000 planned in the next year.

The news came during the National Town Meeting on Demand Response and Smart Grid, which is hosted by the Association for Demand Response. At this year’s conference, which wrapped up on Thursday, speakers and attendees debated the various approach to shedding residential load, whether through peak-time rebates, critical peak pricing, time-based pricing or direct load control. For utilities that are wading into this territory, whether by choice or by regulation, they are finding that customers are often willing participants, but not without substantial effort by the utilities.

“This is geeky stuff for most people,” Tom Stathos of PPL said while participating on a panel during the ADS Town Hall.

For Pepco, even though people signed up for the program and received information during the installation of the cycling unit and smart thermostat, hundreds of people still called the utility during an event last week, according to Jay Demarest, director of customer relations and programs at Pepco.

In most of Pepco’s territories, customers get a $50 rebate for signing up and more money for allowing the utility to cycle off their air conditioner 25 percent, 50 percent or 75 percent -- an additional rebate of up to $80 for the season. Most people choose the 50-percent level.

The program, which is slightly different in each state, initially saw a lot of success through direct mailing. As the mailings become less effective over time, the utility is sending representatives door-to-door, which Demarest said has been very successful.

The current 150,000 customers provide about 200 megawatts of demand response. Most of those are in Pepco’s Maryland territory. The utility usually calls about a half-dozen events every summer.

“The success of PHI’s Energy Wise Rewards Program reflects Comverge’s unique capabilities to work with utilities to successfully deploy large-scale, mass-market demand response programs, and we are very happy to be working with PHI to further expand this already successful program,”  R. Blake Young, CEO and president of Comverge, said in a statement.

Pepco will be upgrading Comverge’s control devices to two-way ZigBee communications and eventually merging the Energy Wise Rewards with dynamic pricing as they’re approved by regulators. "That’s the holy grail for any of these programs,” said Jason Cigarran, vice president of marketing at Comverge.  

During another session, an attendee asked a panel why utilities were even bothering with one-way load control or critical peak pricing rebates, when it’s been shown that time-based pricing signals are effective in getting people to shed load if the price spread is done correctly. “We have to walk before we can run,” said Chris King, chief regulatory officer at eMeter.

Other utilities, like Oklahoma Gas & Electric, are not wading slowly into the deep end. “We’re delivering on schedule, under budget and bringing the savings to our customers that we promised,” said Mike Farrell, director of customer programs at OGE. The utility's mission is to defer new fossil fuel generation until at least 2020. This has helped to enroll about 40,000 customers on peak pricing plans, which delivers about 70 megawatts of load reduction. The utility will add another 110,000 customers to the program in coming years.

Comverge, which has always had a toehold in the residential market, said that the need to justify the expense of AMI and regulatory mandates, such as Pennsylvania Act 129, is driving residential demand response programs.

Besides regulation, the experience of others could also help more utilities with AMI rethink their residential rate plans. "Right now, we’re at 1991, when the MP3 was invented,” said eMeter’s King. “But we’re a while from 2001, when the first iPod came out.”