Back in 2006, researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory set up 200 Washington state homeowners with appliances and displays that tracked and transmitted their energy use – a test run of the potential for the much-vaunted "smart grid" to reach into people's homes.
The idea behind the GridWise project was to enable utilities and homeowners to become informed partners in saving energy. And it worked. Consumers trimmed their power costs by around 10 percent on average.
Fast-forward three years, and you'll find that one half of the promised smart grid is on its way to becoming a reality. Utilities are now tracking power use from their control stations to the smart meters – built by well-established companies like Itron, Landis+Gyr, Sensus, Elster and General Electric – that have been installed at about millions of homes and businesses across the country (see The Year in Smart Grid).
But the so-called "Home Area Network" that will bridge the gap from those smart meters into the home itself remains for the most part the realm of pilot projects.
"We're just at the point where we're laying the network down," said John Quealy, managing director of equity research at Canaccord Adams. "Once you see these meters in, you're going to see another wave in the next year or two in network device-related applications."
Nonetheless, the ecosystem is rapidly evolving. The following is a guide to finding your way around the home.
What Will Get Wired?
To control a household appliance, you've got to first connect it to the network. Although some new appliances come with networking capabilities, most don't, so for the next several years, one of the big tasks will revolve around attaching networking nodules and intelligence to the appliances in your home.
The first target for these efforts invariably is the heating and air conditioning system. HVAC consumes 16 percent of all of the energy in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Thus, expect to see smart thermostats get installed in conjunction with smart meters.
It will then cascade to other appliances. Dryers, for example, use about 5,000 watts of power on average. Several utilities speak about setting up protocols to dryers to prevent them from running, or at least from generating heat, before 6 p.m. Lighting (if dimmable) pool heaters, pool pumps, washers and other appliances will be controlled as well. Even spare freezers, notorious power suckers, can be cycled off and on without risk of thawing, according to Adrian Tuck, CEO of Tendril, which makes home power monitoring and display equipment.
As for how you'll control it, options include Web portals, stand-alone displays or controls embedded in devices like thermostats. On the cutting edge might be controls for cell phones and other mobile devices – Tendril launched such an application recently, and other makers of energy monitoring for the home are planning similar offerings.
What's the Cost?
A smart meter now costs about $100 and the utility picks up the tab. Smart thermostats might cost $150 and up, and a nodule for an individual appliance will cost $10 or less. While utilities will install the meters and even some thermostats, expect them to do less as time goes on and expect consumers to plug in stuff.
Utility Control or Individual Control?
Nearly every company says that individuals want control over their appliances and that they are ready to give it to them. But it's a qualified control. Utilities will provide default settings based around pricing. "Do you want the utility to take corrective action if power prices exceed 15 cents a kilowatt hour?" "Do you want to be on the SuperSaver plan?" Questions like these will be put on an interface and users will then select their plan; then the utility with ratchet down lights and HVAC when appropriate. Consumers will be able to opt out, of course, after getting the warnings about how this could blow their cost savings. Think of it like a restaurant. You pick your food but someone else controls how it's cooked.
Or maybe not. Some companies are looking to the possibility of jumping ahead of utility smart meter rollouts to bring homeowners home energy monitoring gear that could then be linked up to utilities via existing broadband connections (see A Broadband Smart Grid?). But observers note that these kinds of solutions will appeal to a limited class of early adopters willing to shell out hundreds of dollars to get a better grip on their energy usage.