By SHANNON DININNY
BURBANK, Wash. (AP) -- People are arriving home from work in the late afternoon, turning on their washers, dryers and ovens. Demand for power is peaking, so a utility puts in a call to a big farm: "Can you postpone irrigating your hay for a couple of hours?"
Usually, that would be a tough sell for any farmer. Workers would have to be sent out to the fields to turn off pivots and pumps one by one.
Simplot, a powerhouse in the Northwest agriculture industry, instead installed a system that allows it to adjust its water pumping schedule -- on request -- from the shady, air-conditioned confines of an office to take advantage of fluctuations in the power supply. A worker monitors the system on a computer monitor and strikes a few keys to adjust the flow of water, enabling easy shutdown and ramp-up as needed.
It's all part of a pilot project by Bonneville Power Administration this year to examine the benefits of a system like this, with the goal of improving flexibility in the power demand and supply chain and reducing costs for its customers.
It's not quite smart-grid farming, but it's close.
"In a smart-grid world, the laundry would start itself in the middle of the night," said Tom Osborn, a mechanical engineer for energy efficiency and renewable energy for BPA, a Portland, Ore.-based federal agency that sells electricity wholesale to public utilities in the region.
"Could we do something similar in agriculture, with all these 120-acre fields and crop managers ordering water every day?" he asked. "It's worth finding out."
"Smart grid" has become the buzz of the electric power industry. Rising demands for electricity have utilities looking to customers to respond to that demand, such as home thermostats and individual appliances that adjust automatically based on the cost of power.
Customers stand to benefit, gaining detailed information on electricity costs and the ability to choose when and how much power to use at any given time.
Experts say there's potential for large farm operations to benefit as well.
Peak power use in the Northwest typically is in the winter, when residents need to heat their homes, while agricultural peak use is in summer. Rising demand, however, is forcing everyone to consider changes.
It's not an entirely new idea. Utilities in California and Idaho have paid farmers to put off irrigating to off-peak hours. But in the Pacific Northwest, there could be added significance to better managing the load.
This spring, BPA curtailed wind turbines -- mainly at nights and on weekends when demand is low -- because the large volume of melting mountain snowpack left the region flush with hydropower from the Columbia Basin dams.
If irrigators can shift their power usage to when wind power is available and BPA needs a place to send it, power generators, utilities and farmers could all win. That will especially be true next year, when BPA changes its rate structure to reward those who use power when there's less demand.
"Is there a way that they could change the timing, which would benefit Simplot with a lower power bill and would also help BPA because we like to move power from on-peak to off-peak times?" Osborn said. "That's kind of what this is doing right now when we ask them to push the button."
Simplot farms thousands of acres of grain, hay and corn in south-central Washington. The volume of water needed to irrigate all those crops is huge, as is the amount of power needed to move that water. To improve efficiency, the company has invested more than $1.5 million in an automated irrigation system.
As soon as Osborn heard about it, he wondered if there was a way the system could be used to aid the electricity grid by altering the irrigation schedule to meet power supply. He then worked to get the funding to demonstrate if the idea works.
"Now the question is whether we can expand it. I don't know how many farms could do this -- maybe on smaller scales -- but every little bit helps."
The pilot project cost about $30,000, with two-thirds of that paid by BPA and the rest picked up by Columbia Rural Electric Association, the local utility, and Simplot.
"If, in the future, they want to expand this up and down the river system, you have to have support and buy-in from farmers," said Doug Case, energy efficiency specialist for Columbia REA. "Simplot is one of our members who's taken a lot of incentives to control and monitor usage in terms of agriculture."
Alan Weaver, Simplot's farm manager there, said he was initially reluctant to participate because he realized the work that would go into it. The project involved developing software to make Simplot's system perform to the utilities' energy management needs.
"After it's all done, I'm quite excited that we did it, because when they change their rate structure next year, we're going to be set up to deal with it," Weaver said. "Any farm in the future is just going to have to be there too. It's the nature of the future."
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.