Smart Grid in Your Home

Follow these guidelines to manage energy use to control utility bills.

Photo: techbeat.com

Imagine a home where your heat pump, water heater, pool pump, dishwasher, refrigerator, oven, washer, and dryer all work together to lower your energy bill; and where family members can see the real-time effects that a 30-minute shower or left-on light bulb can have on peak energy usage and the utility bill. The expansion of the nation’s Smart Grid will reach all the way into the home, with “smart” appliances able to communicate with the Grid — and you — to help control and lower energy usage.

Some of these new products can help you save money now. For example, you could set up a program based on your schedule to program your water heater to turn off automatically when no one’s home, cutting usage and increasing your savings. Once peak-demand pricing is adopted, that water heater could result in more savings by powering down during expensive peak pricing periods. Your utility will benefit by not having to power up expensive standby generation plants.

Other products now in development, such as dishwashers, refrigerators, and dryers, will benefit you when demand-based or peak pricing is adopted. For example, your refrigerator’s 20-minute automatic defrost cycle, which consumes about 10 times more energy than during the rest of the day, kicks on now any time. A Smart Grid refrigerator will wait to defrost until utility rates are low. A Smart Grid dishwasher will automatically delay its run cycle until rates go down, although you will be able to override the delay feature if you like.

Using the Web to Control Appliances
James and Cynthia Wilson of Fayetteville, NC, participated in a pilot program with the Fayetteville Public Works Commission and technology company Consert Inc. The program allowed the Wilsons and the utility to manage three aspects of home energy use — a four-zone HVAC system, a water heater, and a swimming pool pump — by taking about 15 minutes to fill out an online form with the family’s schedule and preferences.

At a web portal, James Wilson answered a series of questions about the family’s energy use and habits. He also specified what temperature the couple preferred in each zone, and for what hours, as well as how much the utility could adjust that temperature during times of peak demand. Now the Wilsons don’t have to remember to adjust the thermostat when they leave for the day.

“You can’t remember all the time,” Wilson says. “You don’t have time to go to every thermostat. The power company also has the ability to raise our cooling temperature up to 78 degrees instead of 74. You can see the impact that could have across an entire service region.”

In the web portal, Wilson indicated when his family uses hot water so that their water heater could respond to that demand. “I go to bed at 11 p.m. and the hot water heater cuts off,” he says. “I get up at 7 a.m. My water heater starts heating around 6, so it’s ready.” Once everyone leaves the house for the day, the hot water heater switches off, conserving energy throughout its unused daytime hours.

Finally, the Wilsons’ pool pump was set to come on at 2 a.m. The pump will automatically shut off after a certain amount of time if, for example, Wilson turns the pump on when he takes a dip at 6 p.m. and then forgets to turn it off.

Consumers are alerted when they are in a “control event” so they can override the command if they want, Ebihara says. If you want to change a setting, you don’t even have to be home. You could change your water heater setting before you sneak out of work early to make sure you had hot water for a shower at 3 p.m., for example.

Although programmable thermostats offer some of these energy saving benefits, they only work if people have them and actually use them. “In our pilot program in Raleigh [NC], only 15 percent of homes had programmable thermostats and of those, only 50 percent were actually programmed,” Ebihara says. By comparison, the online survey takes about 15 minutes to complete, at which point the homeowner can sit back and watch the energy savings commence. “We think most of America doesn’t want to interact with their products every day,” Ebihara says. “We call it ‘set it and forget it.’ ”

The utility benefits by gaining additional capacity, Ebihara says. “We’re in two-way, real-time communication between the consumer and the utility,” he adds. “We can present to the utility how much energy is being consumed at any point in time and be able to reduce that energy. If [the utility] sees a peak demand situation coming, it can reduce the load and reduce the load on the system.”

As for the Wilsons, they saved about $40 a month from September through April, with more savings possible during the summer. That’s without time-of-use pricing, which is not part of this program. “Being on the trial has been fun,” Wilson says. “Ten years from now, this will be common.”

Apps Make Energy Saving Fun
Speaking of fun, OpenPeak has designed an energy-managing device, the Home Energy Manager, that also allows you to check in with Facebook, Twitter, news and weather — and listen to music. “We realize that the average person might not get that excited about energy management,” says David Barclay, director of energy management for OpenPeak, which produces branded products to manage home energy use. “But you care about your Facebook page and Twitter updates. This keeps people more engaged in the energy-saving functionality.”

The energy saving and managing function shows you how much energy you’re using right this minute. You can set up monthly goals, monitor your progress, and get energy-saving tips if you’re not on track, Barclay says. Preliminary data shows that users may save up to 25 percent on energy use, he says.

Making It Real With Real-Time Usage Data
Or, you could use these managing products as an education tool for family members guilty of routinely leaving the lights on, leaving the hot water running, or leaving the TV, computer, and game systems on.

“I drag the kids over and say, ‘See those lights you left on? Go and turn them off. See how much money we save,’ ” says Mike Beyerle, innovation manager for General Electric. Beyerle tested a GE Home Energy Manager with his own family. “The first thing you get is an education,” he says. For example, you’ll be able to find out how much you spend to wash a load of laundry in hot water as opposed to cold water.

Designer Electricity 
With smart appliances and a home energy manager, you could set a home energy budget for the month and manage your energy use to hit that target, says Barclay. “You could say, ‘Manage my energy use so my energy bill is 10 percent less than last month,’ ” Barclay says. “The program could suggest a range of tips, reprogram your thermostat, turn off the water heater at night. It’s as active as you want it to be. You can go appliance by appliance or you can say, ‘I want to save money. What do you recommend?’ ”

With Smart Grid in the home, your electric bill also could be itemized to show, for example, how much energy your 20-year-old refrigerator uses, how much electricity your water heater consumes, and how much phantom power that new TV draws even in standby mode, Berst says. “If you saw that you were paying $100 a month just to keep your plasma TV on standby mode at 2 in the morning in case you had insomnia, you might plug it into a socket that automatically turns it off at midnight.”

You could track your energy use daily or weekly and change your habits if you were heading toward a major bill.

“Right now, we have one piece of data that tells us and them how much electricity they’ve used,” says Gianna Manes, Duke Energy’s chief customer officer. “They’ve already used it up. They don’t want to be surprised when that bill comes in. With these new meters, we can give them information quicker and give them more of it.”

The knowledge will give consumers information to take action. “The exciting thing is this can change the way people use and view electricity,” Hamilton says. “People don’t view energy as a commodity. Electricity to them is the flip of a light switch. They don’t know how much they spend — it’s not detailed the way our phone calls are. This will help us make different choices for energy. You can set goals for how much you want to spend. You can decide, ‘Hey I want to reduce my carbon emissions.’ ”

Homeowners and businesses that need guaranteed reliability might pay a higher rate. “Right now the hospital gets the same priority as the video game parlor,” Berst says. “We need to be able to identify the critical load and keep them up.”

You might be able to set parameters such as reducing your home’s carbon footprint or setting a target dollar amount for your energy bill, Hamilton says. “Hopefully, some of the systems that are going to come out will give you solutions: here’s what you can do if you’re not on track,” she says.

No Smart Appliances? No Problem
But what about consumers who, unlike Wilson, aren’t computer savvy? “People like my 87-year-old mother are not going to want to figure out how to program the dishwasher,” says David W. Kreutzer, Ph.D., a research fellow in energy economics and climate change in the Center for Data Analysis at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

Consumers should be able to obtain the energy-saving benefits of Smart Grid even if they don’t have a home area network or even smart appliances. “Ideally, a consumer could purchase a Smart Grid-enabled clothes dryer, plug it in, and register it with their service provider through a Web portal or a toll-free phone call,” says a federal agency, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), calling for “plug and play” configuration with no technical expertise required.

Smart appliances shouldn’t be necessary either to benefit from Smart Grid and time of use pricing, says Katherine Hamilton, an energy expert who recently stepped down as president of GridWise Alliance. “You could program your thermostat to go down a couple of degrees,” she says. “You could decide not to run your dishwasher or washing machine [at peak times]. Not all of this is going to require new appliances.”

For example, one home energy manager will show you when your utility is charging peak-usage rates — a useful tool once those rates are widespread. Tendril’s Vision looks like a clock and does tell time. But it also shows green when utility prices are in off-peak hours, red when prices hit peak hours, and a red highlight as a warning when a peak pricing period is about to begin, says Sara Blanchard, a spokeswoman for Tendril.