The smart home is as old as Tomorrowland, but it now looks like it just might be around the corner.
General Electric's Consumer and Industrial division has teamed up with Tendril to develop algorithms and other technology that will essentially allow utilities employing Tendril's TREE platform to turn GE dryers, refrigerators, washing machines and other energy-gobbling appliances off or on to curb power consumption.
Utilities will be able to control appliances from other manufacturers with the hardware and software that make up TREE (which stands for Tendril Residential Energy Ecosystem) but the control won't be as fine-grained, said Tendril CEO Adrian Tuck.
"GE has spent a lot of time on what a refrigerator should to save power without disruption people in their daily lives," said Adrian Tuck, CEO of Tendril. "What we are going is linking that to TREE [the Tendril Residential Energy Ecosystem]. It allows the appliances to link securely to the grid."
A utility will begin trials in the fourth quarter, he added.
The announcement will likely be seen as another important important step forward in a concept that has lingered for years. Futurists in the 1940s and '50s talked about environments that would adjust to human occupants. In the '90s, companies like LG released refrigerators with LCD screens and Internet connections so you could check if you needed some half and half during the drive home.
Consumers mostly shrugged. Rising power bills and fears about greenhouse gas emissions, though, have given the concept of the smart home a second life. Several startups, naturally, have sprung up to provide technology that can control power in homes and commercial buildings: Adura Technologies, Greenbox, Lumenergi, Agilewaves, Lucid Design Group, etc.
Various industry estimates predict that demand-response systems like this could curb electricity consumption in homes by 10 percent to 30 percent. Heating and air conditioning systems are the first obvious targets – HVAC accounts for 39 percent of the energy consumed in homes, according to statistics from the 2008 Buildings Energy Data Book from the Department of Energy. Water heaters and lights account for 12 percent each while refrigerators account for 7 percent.
Additionally, utilities can reduce the need for peaker plants if enough consumers participate.
Tendril in some ways can be considered an early leader in homes. It has landed technology trials with a number of utilities and raised $30 million in a third round in June. Still, since it has started, giants like Cisco, Google, Panasonic and Microsoft have unfurled strategies and plans to participate in this market.
Consolidation in the sector could begin over the next 18 months as utilities move from trials to selecting one or two vendors for commercial deployments.
Success for any of these companies, though, will hinge upon customer acceptance. Critics claim that consumers will smell big brother in this. Then again, the growth of demand response companies has shown that consumers and businesses will move toward a set-it-and-forget-it mode if they see lower power bills.
"I was pretty oblivious before. Didn't pay much attention. You'd get the bill and say, 'What the hell did we do?' Now I can at least put my thumb on what kind of costs are involved when your kids are running around," said said one consumer who participated in a smart home trial conducted by OG&E Electrical Services and Silver Spring Networks earlier this year.
Security and privacy issues will have to be addressed. Tuck says his company can meet these challenges but adds "no one really knows exactly how the systems will work three years from now."