East Hills SmartStreet uses less electricity

September 25, 2011
| By Pete Daly |
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The East Hills neighborhood in Grand Rapids and the Consumers Energy SmartStreet pilot project seem tailor-made for each other.

The SmartStreet concept offers what the utility calls “a sneak peek at emerging opportunities for saving energy, saving money and improving the environment.” East Hills, which is where the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and the new Brewery Vivant are located, is a concentration of electricity customers who really take energy conservation seriously.

The year-long project began in December and serves to demonstrate the ways Consumers Energy is preparing to meet growing energy demand with renewable energy resources and greater energy efficiency, according to the utility.

SmartStreet has installed “smart meters” at 31 participating commercial customers and 29 residential customers in East Hills, which is loosely defined as the area around the intersection of Lake Drive SE and Diamond Avenue SE. The smart meters can be monitored remotely and provide a detailed report on that customer’s fluctuating electrical use throughout each day. The participating customers also have received a professional energy audit and, in some cases, energy-efficient lighting to replace outmoded bulbs. Using web portals and home energy display units, participants can track and actively control their energy usage in near real time, according to Consumers Energy.

SmartStreet also has included installation of a plug-in electric vehicle charging station behind Marie Catrib’s restaurant and installation of solar-generation equipment at The Green Well Gastro Pub.

Kristin van Reesema, project manager for SmartStreet at Consumers Energy headquarters in Jackson, noted, “This is the only project of its kind in Michigan.”

Consumers is eventually going to issue smart meters to many more of its customers, with the first widespread installation starting in Muskegon in January, according to van Reesema.

Van Reesema spent months last year checking out various communities in Michigan for the first — and to date, only — SmartStreet testing project.

“I really liked the East Hills neighborhood,” she said. “They’re very in tune with sustainability. … It’s really an artsy place and a very energy-conscious community.” The area is home to several buildings that are LEED certified or in the process.

East Hills humorously likes to boast that it is “the Center of the Universe.” Located about one mile east of downtown Grand Rapids, it encompasses three distinct neighborhood business districts. The East Hills Council of Neighbors website states that it is “the ultimate in urban living, a vibrant, diverse and walkable community with a great variety of living options.”

“They are also extremely community-focused,” said van Reesema.

Van Reesema said Kathryn (K.C.) Caliendo of the East Hills Council of Neighbors, and Rachel Hood, executive director of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council, both readily offered assistance to the SmartStreet project.

About the time SmartStreet was being organized in December, Brewery Vivant was just opening its doors. Located at 925 Cherry St. SE, it is a restaurant and microbrewery owned and operated by Jason and Kris Spaulding. Brewery Vivant is now putting out about 2,000 cases per month of its high-end French- and Belgian-style beers, plus supplying kegs to about two dozen licensed establishments that offer it on tap. Its beers also can be found at Meijer stores.

Those 2,000 cases each contain 24 cans of Brewery Vivant beer — note “cans,” not bottles. Since microbreweries began cropping up in the U.S. in the early 1980s, triggered by the home-brewing craze of the 1970s, virtually all craft brews have been delivered to the consumer in kegs or bottles. Brewery Vivant is among the new wave of craft brewers canning their production as part of an effort toward sustainability and reduced energy consumption.

“One of the reasons we’re excited about (SmartStreet) is, we have really high sustainability goals for our brewery, and that’s why we went into cans, as well,” said Jason Spaulding.

He said he and his wife, Kris, studied “the total footprint” of energy required for canning beer versus bottling it. Spaulding, one of the two founders of the New Holland Brewing Co. in Holland in 1996, had been planning Brewery Vivant for five years.

“The biggest thing about aluminum versus glass is that so much less energy is required to recycle aluminum,” said Spaulding. Aluminum cans add much less weight to the end product, too, which is reflected in lower transportation cost.

Brewery Vivant, a $3 million total investment, is in a former funeral chapel more than 80 years old that was completely rebuilt to the Spauldings’ specifications according to LEED Silver requirements, with the goal of receiving that certification.

Energy requirements at Brewery Vivant are complicated because it is a brewery as well as a full-service restaurant, and those two types of operations differ in when and how much energy is required.

Spaulding equates brewing with a manufacturing process, and “manufacturing is a pretty energy-intensive process.” The steam boiler for the brewing process is gas-fired, but brewing also involves a lot of sophisticated pumps and chillers that use electricity. Chilling freshly brewed beer that is still hot is “a big draw,” according to Spaulding, so the brewery’s energy cost is in the thousands of dollars per month.

Energy use for the restaurant is much more predictable, he said, and thus not as adjustable as the brewery energy demand.

“The energy companies always look at your peak demand and the rate you pay is based on your peak demand, so if we can delay that peak demand to a later time when it’s not coupled with the kitchen demand, we might save quite a bit of money just by not reaching that peak,” he said.

The smart meter allows Spaulding to track energy use to see where the spikes are; they have been experimenting with brewing schedules where the spikes come in off-peak times.

SmartStreet also did an audit at Brewery Vivant and subsequently switched out some light fixtures with LEDs, which use far less energy, and installed motion detectors that turn off lights when no one is in that area.

“They really did a nice job for us,” Spaulding said of the SmartStreet program.

Other facilities that are participating in the project include Congress Elementary School and the building at 1001 Lake Drive SE named East Hills Center of the Universe, which houses WMEAC and Marie Catrib’s.

Two facilities in downtown Grand Rapids also are participating in SmartStreet: the Grand Rapids Public Museum and the City/County Administration Building.

Van Reesema said Consumers Energy has not yet decided if there will be SmartStreet services for every neighborhood. “We wanted to see what the results were,” she said, and the project still has the rest of the year to go.

She said the major issue to be determined is “if we were actually able to effectuate behavioral changes — it’s really up to the customer.”

The heat waves of the summer of 2011 were timely in that SmartStreet showed startling spikes to some of the participants. “People don’t realize how much energy their window air conditioner was sucking out,” she said, leaving many Consumers customers around the state “shocked” by the size of their bills.

With SmartStreet, participants can monitor and manage their own energy use “so it’s not a big surprise when the bill comes,” according to van Reesema.

“A lot of people don’t have their thermostat programmed properly,” she said — and, apparently, even an organization as concerned about electricity use as WMEAC was one of those. She said WMEAC discovered it was not decreasing its A/C use on weekends, even when nobody was there. And an art gallery owner who participated realized he had opportunities for reducing A/C use without impacting his customer traffic.

More information about the SmartStreet project is available at consumersenergy.com/smartstreet. Walking tours of East Hills where businesses are participants are also available, with self-guided maps available at WMEAC and Green Well Gastro Pub at 924 Cherry St. SE. Guided tours are available by calling (616) 654-6904.

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