Studies: Monitoring, Smart Appliances Cut Home Energy Bills

The results of a pair of year-long studies that use so-called intelligent appliances show that new power grid management tools in the home — and even in the appliances themselves — can help save homeowners money while improving power grid efficiency at the same time.

The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) — part of the Department of Energy — and its Pacific Northwest GridWise Demonstration Project found that advanced technologies saved the consumers who participated in the study 10 percent on their electricity bills, on average.

Two Studies, Similar Results

The project was funded primarily by the DoE but was also supported by utilities, manufacturers and IBM, which provided the software behind the effort. The two separate studies covered parts of Washington state and Oregon, with a goal of testing demand-response concepts as well as the technologies.

In the Olympic Peninsula Project, homeowners were willing to adjust their individual energy use based on price signals provided online.

In the Grid Friendly Appliance Project, household appliances fitted with special controllers could automatically respond to increases in power grid demand to reduce energy consumption.

“As demand for electricity continues to grow, Smart Grid technologies such as those demonstrated in the Olympic Peninsula area will play an important role in ensuring a continued delivery of safe and reliable power to all Americans,” noted DOE Assistant Secretary for Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability Kevin Kolevar. “The department remains committed to working with industry to research, develop and deploy cutting-edge technologies to power our electric grid and help maintain robust economic growth,” he added.

New Gear

The 112 homeowners who participated in the Olympic Peninsula project received new electric meters as well as thermostats, water heaters and dryers connected via Invensys Controls home gateway devices to IBM software, PNNL reported.

The software let homeowners customize devices to a desired level of comfort or economy and automatically responded to changing electricity prices in five-minute intervals. To reduce usage in peak periods, when electricity is most expensive, the software automatically lowered thermostats or shut off the heating element of water heaters to the pre-set response limits established by individual homeowners, PNNL explained.

The key to success seems to stem with the level of consumer control — participants could customize their energy use and change their customizations at any time. If homeowners leave at 8 a.m. and return at 5:30 p.m. during the workweek, it’s already easy to set most programmable thermostats to drop the heat of the home. That action is done in isolation, but with access to grid data, a homeowner could choose to drop the temperature of the home a few degrees and put on a sweater if electricity demand rises on the power grid. In this case, the decision could be for the good of the nation or in response to rising energy prices.

“The tools used in the study gave consumers the chance to be active participants in managing the electric grid. When you give people the right tools, most of the time they will put them to good use,” noted Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash.

Smart Dryers

In the Grid Friendly Appliance project, controllers were embedded in commercially available dryers and water heaters in 150 homes, PNNL reported. The GFA controllers can detect and respond to stress on the electricity grid, and when stress is detected, the controller automatically turns off specific functions like the heating element in a dryer. Even a seemingly small interruption in consumption over one to two minutes, when spread across multiple dryers, can be enough to stabilize the balance between supply and demand on the grid without the need to turn on inefficient gas-turbine generators, PNNL said.

The study also found that Grid Friendly Appliance controllers have the technical capacity to act as a “shock absorber” for the grid and can prevent or reduce the impact of power outages. If GFA controllers were rolled out across all appliances in the United States, it said, up to 20 percent of the nation’s power usage could be put on hold if needed — which could come in quite handy in the event of an energy grid disaster.

What’s Next?

“PNNL will continue to partner with DOE to extend these tools and concepts for broader implementation around the country,” Rob Pratt, PNNL program manager for the GridWise program, told TechNewsWorld.

“DOE will be working with industry to establish standards on interpretability — which are the rules of the game that allow devices to communicate together on the Internet — and PNNL will be working directly with industry to help industry scale up these demonstrations in the real world,” he added.

If the foundational infrastructure of the power grid has to be made ready first, how long until consumers can start shopping for grid-smart appliances at their local stores?

“We expect to see pockets of homes with these types of technology in the next five years, with wide-scale adoption 10 to 15 years out,” Pratt said.

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