The finer points of watt watching

To what extent does your trusty kitchen coffee pot add to that utility bill? Or the refrigerator in the garage? Or the clunky family computer? Whether people are aware of it or not, every appliance has a monthly price tag attached to it. However, through a partnership between Xcel Energy and the Minot Public Library, energy customers can now determine where those extra dollars and cents are coming from.

Available to borrow at the main desk of the library, the device is a “Watts up? Pro” model electric meter, which plugs into a standard 120-volt outlet and includes a USB interface. Various electrical appliances can then be plugged into the meter, which measures their output in kilowatts-per-hour for any amount of time desired. Among its features, the meter’s Payback Calculator can translate that usage into a monetary figure based on the customer’s billing rate, and from there estimate the amount of time it would take for a more energy-efficient device to pay for itself in reduced energy costs.

There are six meters available at the Minot Public Library, donated by Xcel Energy as part of a five-state usage awareness campaign it launched in November 2009, involving 61 local libraries. Since the program began, devices have been checked out around 31,000 times. In North Dakota, the other participating bibliotech is the Fargo Public Library. In expanding the program to three more states and 29 more facilities, Xcel wishes to remind the public that the devices are available.

“It’s an easy tool, and a great tool, for families to calculate their energy usage,” said Kathy Aas, community relations manager with the company. “Libraries were chosen because everyone knows they are available,” she went on to explain. In addition to the Watts up? meters, in March 2010 Xcel had also provided half a dozen handheld infrared thermometers, with which to test the efficiency of household insulation.

“Anyone who has checked them out has given us good feedback,” said Janet Anderson, adult services librarian at Minot Public Library. However, “people haven’t checked them out as often as they used to,” she admitted.

Energy companies around the country are trying to keep apace of growing demand, and raising consumption consciousness is one of the ways utilities such as Xcel try to reduce overburdening the grid. However, the federal Energy Information Administration finds that the problem lies not entirely in personal consumption. In 1980, it found that of 81.6 million households, each were using an average of 114 million British thermal units for the year; by 2009, 113.6 million homes were on average using 89.6 million Btu apiece. So while according to those estimates the average household is using 21.4 percent less energy, in the aggregate American home energy use is up by 9.4 percent due to an increase in homes and living units, translating into an extra 876.2 trillion Btu needed each year.

In the commercial and residential sectors, North Dakota energy customers enjoy the lowest rates in the nation. Due to a variety of factors, it is also the fourth-greatest user of energy per capita at 713 million Btu per person, per year. And a North Dakota Industrial Commission forecast, compiled last October by the consultancy Kadrmas, Lee & Jackson, expects its energy usage to jump dramatically in the near future. The study looked in particular at nine western North Dakota counties and three in Montana, which will see ever-increasing activity in the Williston Basin as a result of oil extraction there.

The forecast estimates an increase in power usage of 89 percent in the region between the years 2012 and 2017, with combined commercial and industrial needs expected to jump 208 percent. “The main reason behind this large increase over the five year period is significant hikes in large (commercial and industrial) electrical demand,” it explains.

While Xcel’s service coverage area does not quite extend to the western reaches of the state, for North Dakota the report identifies Ward and McKenzie counties as the ones anticipated to have the highest population-based needs during the course of oilfield development, which it expects to peak by 2032. The full report can be found at (