On Tuesday, ABB unveiled the world’s first low-voltage circuit breaker with energy management functions built in.

The SACE Emax 2 air circuit breaker can save energy by using loads more efficiently and also flatten load demand to reduce demand charges. Breakers like the Emax 2 are widely used in low-voltage environments in various industries, including commercial buildings, manufacturing plants, data centers, ships and windmills.

“We wanted to make something that could contribute to increased efficiency in electrical distribution,” said Pietro Esposto, global product manager of low-voltage air circuit breakers for ABB. “The idea was, we must design it to integrate with the smart grid.”

The breaker is not that much different from its predecessor, but is equipped with a communications chip that runs on the IEC 61850 standard and is embedded with ABB’s power controller technology that uses software to manage non-essential downstream loads. The system can work with any building management system or can operate on its own.

Esposto said that savings come in two ways. One is that it can maximize the efficiency of the loads. Instead of running three HVAC compressors at 50 percent, for instance, it can run two at a more efficient 100 percent. Adjustments like that can result in cost savings of 3 percent to 4 percent.

The greater savings, however, come from adjusting load to avoid demand charges. Pietro said that in a department store, the power controller could drop peak load from 580 kilowatts to about 500 kilowatts, which could save thousands of dollars over the course of a year. He said prices were still being finalized, but that the payback was usually three to four months in any type of building. The energy savings costs for load shifting is about 15 percent to 17 percent of peak demand.

Pietro described the product as the smart grid’s entry point into the low-voltage network. The circuit breakers can talk to each other if there is a fault. The fault can be isolated and then the other parts of the system can open back up.

ABB expects that customers could use the circuit breakers not just to save money by shifting load, but also maybe to make some money off of demand response programs.

This is just the beginning of a wave of communications and controls being built directly into equipment (from motors to solid-state lighting) so that smaller loads can be automatically tailored to supply.

“Breakers provide one of the largest untapped opportunities in the electric system to achieve energy savings. Breakers have been used to increase safety and protect electric circuits, but now, for the first time, we use them to save energy too,” Tarak Mehta, head of ABB’s Low Voltage Products division, said in a statement.

“Because breakers are all around us, the total energy savings potential is massive. It’s a great example of how we can use smart technology to reduce energy wastage,” he added. The infographic below shows the potential savings if all of these types of breakers were to be replaced with ABB’s new Emax breakers.

smart circuit breaker

ABB is already taking orders for countries using the IEC standard (i.e., Europe, Middle East, China) and expects to ship this summer. It is awaiting final approval of a UL standard and expects to have a product for North America in early 2014.