The London-based company is spending about $44 million on the two-year initiative in Worcester, which will examine whether computerized thermostats, streams of data about kilowatt use and promises of lower electricity rates will prompt a wide array of customers to change their behavior.
“We’re giving them the ability to save on how much energy they use and how much it ultimately costs them,” said Edward White Jr., National Grid vice president of customer and business strategy.
The launch of the pilot program has been in the works for about two years, since National Grid won approval of its proposal from the state Department of Public Utilities. Under a 2008 state law, companies that distribute electricity in Massachusetts were required to come up with plans for smart grid service.
Smart grid refers to technology that permits two-way communication between a utility and its customers over electrical lines.
National Grid chose Worcester for its program and spent recent months enrolling about 15,000 households and businesses across the city in the effort, or about 20 percent of the 77,000 local National Grid customers.
Mr. White said not all customers approached for the program signed on, but those who did received meters capable of sending information about power use to National Grid.
Some customers set up online accounts and downloaded smartphone apps to track their power use. Others received small computer screens in decorative frames to display the data. Some customers also agreed to use “smart plug” wall outlet devices that National Grid can power down during busy periods, effectively shutting off everything plugged into that outlet.
Nicolas D. Guerra, an aide to U.S. Rep. James P. McGovern, D-Worcester, said he and a roommate agreed to use a smart meter and other devices in the apartment they share in a three-decker building. The recent college graduates monitor their power use from a screen in their kitchen.
Watching their power use has prompted the men to do laundry only after 8 p.m., Mr. Guerra said. If they leave home only to recall that a video game machine in their living room was left on, they use a smartphone app to power down a smart plug. The bigger change in their behavior involves heating.
“We keep the house at 65 (degrees) when we’re there and during the day when we’re gone at like, 57,” said Mr. Guerra. “Just being able to see (usage) when the furnace kicks on, it’s astronomical.”
In return for taking part in the program, households and businesses get a chance to lower their electrical bills.
National Grid said that for 335 days a year, those in the program will pay daytime rates that are lower than the basic service rate. Their rates will drop even more for power used between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m.
During the 30 days a year when energy use soars, mostly because of heat and humidity, National Grid will encourage customers in the program to reduce their use of electricity.
The utility estimates customers in the program could slash their bills an average of $16 a month.
Still, about 6 percent to 7 percent of customers approached by National Grid declined to participate in the program. Smart grid technology also has been criticized by some consumers concerned about privacy issues and electromagnetic waves.
Whether smart grid innovations can change consumers’ behavior remains unclear, according to Neil Strother, a principal research analyst at Navigant Research, a firm focused on the global clean technology industry.
Some projects have indicated that consumers altered their actions and saved money, although the amounts were sometimes small, he said. Convenience is important for consumers, too, he said. “I don’t think they want to do a lot of heavy lifting,” Mr. Strother said. “Most people are not engineers or that geeky about this stuff.”
For National Grid, smart grid technology has also given the utility tools to monitor its system. The company installed about 180 antennas on utility poles around Worcester to communicate with devices and control centers.
“Today if a tree branch falls, 1,000 customers could go out,” Mr. White said. “With these devices and the intelligence, the smart piece of it, it actually sectionalizes it and shrinks down, so maybe only 100 customers are out.”
Contact Lisa Eckelbecker at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @LisaEckelbecker