Energy Efficiency
Get Smart!
The rewarding potential of ‘smart homes’


The next generation Smart Grid will allow utility companies and consumers to better monitor and manage energy consumption.
Courtesy: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

You’ve just left your house for a road trip when you have a moment of doubt: are the lights off? To ease the panic, you turn the car around, head back home, and check each room just to make sure. Sure enough, the lights were off.

In the not-so-distant future, you may be able to do the same thing simply by calling your house from your cell phone! That’s one of the promises of the so-called “smart home.”

As envisioned, a smart home would use a wireless network to connect appliances, lighting, heating and cooling, entertainment systems, and more to a central computer, allowing them to be controlled both within the house and remotely (such as through a cell phone or website). This setup, while not new in concept, combines home automation with energy management.  

The first wave of smart home technology currently on the market focuses on ways to help consumers cut their electric bills. This includes the ability to monitor kilowatt-hour consumption through a “smart meter” that relays real-time energy use and costs to utilities and consumers alike.

During a recent demonstration in Washington, D,C., by the U.S. Department of Energy Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, clothes dryers were equipped with LED (light-emitting diode) screens that “talked” to an electric meter and let people know the most affordable times to use the appliance. Other smart appliances shown employed a simple red light/green light approach to signal when they were less expensive to operate.

Beat the Peak

Consumers can save a lot of money by using appliances late in the evening or earlier in the day during “off-peak”’ times, compared to afternoons and early evenings, considered “peak” energy use times, when most households run dishwashers, clothes washers and other appliances.  In 2008, Delaware Electric Cooperative asked their members to “Beat the Peak” by voluntarily limiting the use of home appliances between 3 and 7 p.m. on the hottest day of each month.

“We are excited our members are taking ownership of their energy costs and helping support the ‘Beat the Peak’ program,” shared Delaware Electric Cooperative Board Chairman Bill Wells in early 2009, after the success of the program saved the co-op’s 74,000 members approximately $2 million.

Several brands of in-home displays connected to electric meters for tracking energy use and pricing information are currently available. These devices will likely become popular as consumers try to save money by understanding how many kilowatt-hours it takes to run the dishwasher or other appliances, and the best time of the day to do so. But this ability may not be restricted to the home for long. Google’s PowerMeter, still in the testing stages, could lead the way in tapping the World Wide Web for helping you monitor your power use.

“We think having energy information [available from anywhere with high-speed Internet access] that tells consumers how much energy they’re using will help them make smart choices and save energy and money,” predicts Google Engineer Ed Lu.

New language

Other whiz-bang automation technology advances include X10, a language developed by IBM that allows lights, doorbells, and more to talk to each other. Small boxes plugged in a home’s electric sockets, controlled through a website or some other portal, use existing wiring to notify selected devices when to turn on or off.

While all of this may sound great, why isn’t it in widespread use already?

“A lot of different components need to go into a smart home, but most are just in the demonstration or theoretical phase at this point,” explains Bob Gibson, principal program manager with the Cooperative Research Network, an arm of Arlington, Va.-based National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA).

Another major drawback has been the lack of widespread intelligent infrastructure, including smart meters, as well as lagging deployment of high-speed Internet service, especially in rural areas. Finally, common technical standards need to be set, allowing appliances, electric meters, and other home systems to interact easily with each other.

Federal stimulus

The 2009 federal stimulus bill provided $4.5 billion to the U.S. Department of Energy for funding “smart grid” technologies—ways for utilities to communicate with each other and with homes and businesses that better manage the amount of electricity used throughout the day. Another $7.2 billion was set aside in the package to extend broadband Internet access to underserved regions.

About half of the nation’s electric cooperatives are using an automated meter infrastructure (AMI), according to a recent survey by NRECA Market Research Services. Another 21 percent of co-ops have automated meter reading (AMR) units in place and 11 percent will add AMR or AMI over the next year. By that time 82 percent of co-op members will be connected in some way to a smart meter.

“The electric cooperative focus on consumers has driven our investment in automated meter infrastructure and distribution automation,” comments Glenn English , NRECA CEO.

Co-op leadership

Cooperatives are also at the forefront in developing standard ways for commonly used software and automation tools, mainly in the grid’s distribution system, to work together. The MultiSpeak Initiative, launched in 1999, essentially allows meters, consumer databases, and utility equipment to “talk” to each other without expensive custom programming, helping boost system efficiency and service reliability. MultiSpeak also has been partnering with the Common Information Model, developed by the Geneva, Switzerland-based International Electrotechnical Commission, to create a single global utility data integration standard. .

“Cooperatives have tackled the issue of interoperability and improving communications head on,” remarks English. “This will be crucial to achieving greater efficiency and demand reductions through the smart grid.”

The coming of smart homes and related gadgets could not only make your lifestyle easier, but benefit your pocketbook, too. According to a report from Electric Power Research Institute, a non-profit research consortium made up of electric utilities, including electric cooperatives, headquartered in Palo Alto, Calif., a smart grid and smart home technologies that will follow could reduce America’s retail electricity sales 4.3 percent annually by 2030.

Now that’s smart.

Sources: Electric Power Research Institute, Cooperative Research Network, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Google.org.

Megan McKoy writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the Arlington, Va.-based service arm of the nation’s 900-plus consumer-owned, not-for-profit electric cooperatives.