More Xcel Customers Opt In to Air-Conditioning Deal

The utility says it's taking less effort to get customers to enroll in its programs that help them save money by agreeing to use less energy during hot weather.

It's been about two decades since Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy, Inc., launched two programs through which customers can save money on their electric bills by using less energy on hot summer days.

But increased interest in conserving energy-and money, during rough economic times-have required less work on Xcel's part to attract customers to the program.

Residential customers who enroll in Xcel's “Saver's Switch” program get 15 percent off of their electric charges. The utility provider installs a switch on or near customers' air conditioners. If the temperature and humidity rise-and Xcel's system is strained-the utility sends a signal to the switch, which causes the air conditioner to shut off in 15 to 20 minute intervals.

According to Patrik Ronnings, an Xcel product manager who oversees the program, customers' fans continue to spin during the time when the air conditioner is shut off-causing the cool air to circulate. “Most people frankly don't even realize when we're controlling the AC,” he said of the program, which runs from June through September.

And just because it's a scorcher doesn't mean Xcel will call a “control day” and activate the switch. (Xcel didn't even cut off any air conditioning on Tuesday, when the temperature climbed above 100 degrees.) In fact, Xcel has only called three control days in the past three years, although in the program's 20-year history, there are on average 10 to 12 annually. On weekends and holidays, when Xcel's systems are less strained by commercial customers, the company rarely calls a “control day” for residential customers.

To be eligible, customers must have central air and live in single family home or townhome, with a dedicated air conditioner unit on the ground level. (High-rise apartments and condos are out of luck.)

Ronnings said that the program has continued to grow as customers become “more receptive to the message” of energy efficiency. This has also reduced the necessary advertising efforts on Xcel's behalf. “It seems to me that saving money on an electric bill is more in vogue today,” he added.

Xcel has a target of enrolling 21,000 customers in Minnesota this year, and it's currently at around 15,000. Ronnings estimates that at least half of Xcel's residential customers who are eligible for the program are enrolled, saving an average of $60 dollars on their electric bills over the course of the summer.

Businesses can get in on the savings, too, with Xcel's “Electric Rate Savings” program. Scott Scheving, who manages the program, said that eligible commercial customers must have a peak load of at least 50 kilowatt-hours or more-and be able if called upon to shed that load.

In other words, if a business uses 100 kilowatts and Xcel calls a “control day,” the company must reduce its usage to 50 kilowatts. Companies then receive credit on their future bills; how much they save depends on how much electricity they agree to cut off when called upon, and how quickly they can do it.

Tuesday's heat did prompt Xcel to call on some commercial customers to reduce their usage, although Scheving said that the company reaches out to different companies at different times to ensure that the same customers aren't repeatedly asked to cut back.

Scheving said that the company continues to add commercial customers to its program, as many businesses are looking for new ways to become more energy efficient. And as existing customers expand their businesses-and electricity use-they can save even more money by agreeing to cut off additional usage.