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Power of choice keeps lights on

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By Adam Brandolph
Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2012

When a magnitude-5.8 earthquake struck central Virginia in August and tripped the North Anna nuclear-power plant offline, lights went out in Pittsburgh.

But not from quake damage. Instead, multiple institutions, businesses and factories -- members of ClearChoice Energy's Demand Response program in the region -- powered down their lights to conserve energy and balance the demand for electricity with the reduced supply so consumers, hospitals and others wouldn't be affected.

When demand for power is high and supply is low, "the general public doesn't really know what's going on, but you have folks behind the scenes who are getting notice to shut off their power," said Carolyn Pengidore, CEO of ClearChoice Energy in Allison Park. "The lights stay on, so no one knows there was an issue."

Pengidore spoke on Monday at a forum about energy sustainability. The University of Pittsburgh School of Law's Innovation Practice Institute and the Pittsburgh Journal of Environmental and Public Health Law hosted the forum at Phipps Conservatory in Oakland.

ClearChoice Energy's demand response program, Pengidore said, is one way to reduce the need for new power plants, transmission lines and additional energy production while maintaining reliability. The program also preserves energy for homes and critical needs, she said.

Members of her company's program include universities, government, manufacturers, grocery stores and others between New Jersey and northern Illinois. The company pays them for conserving energy based on how much it can divert back to the power grid.

"It's really anybody who is a very large consumer of electricity and has the operational flexibility to curtail use for a short period of time," she said.

Members in this region include Pitt, Butler County Community College, Northampton Community College in Allentown and Connellsville Area School District.

The company has paid more than $100,000 to Pitt and Northampton Community College and more than $80,000 to Butler County Community College. Connellsville expected to receive about $56,000 when district officials signed a one-year contract in 2010, according to public records. Connellsville officials did not return calls.

Jim Hrabosky, vice president of finance and administration for the community college in Butler, said the program was an easy sell to administrators.

"Not only are we going green a little bit, but it's reduced our expenses," Hrabosky said.

Pengidore said ClearChoice Energy has paid out "millions and millions of dollars" over the past three years.

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