Smart home appliances: questions remain

UTC webinar refreshes the conversation

Phil Carson | Jan 01, 2013

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The market for smart appliances is filled with questions, according to a webinar devoted to the subject hosted by the Utilities Telecom Council (UTC) just prior to the holi-daze. 

Rather than give a blow-by-blow account of the webinar, I'll just cite a few of the uncertainties in the market mentioned during the event.

First, the notion of managing one's energy use via smartphone is "no longer futuristic," said moderator Ron Bilodeau, a project manager with NV Energy, who also chairs UTC's business development division. In fact, NV Energy is working on a variety of means for utility and/or customer control of heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems in summer-peaking urban areas such as Las Vegas. (More on NV Energy's programs in an upcoming column.) 

The focus on smart appliances has shifted in the past few years, with the advent of a smarter grid, from individual machine efficiencies to system efficiencies, according to Charles Smith, who works for GE Appliances & Lighting but also chairs a task force on the subject for the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM).   

First, the industry will need to determine the benefits that would accrue to the three major participants in such a scenario: the appliance manufacturer, the customer and the utility, Smith said. Presumably, a manufacturer would earn, for instance, an Energy Star rating for efficiency; a consumer would save money and/or lower their carbon footprint; and utilities would benefit from smart appliances' contribution to load shaping. To encourage consumers to swap out their old appliances for smarter ones might be rewarded by a rebate or credit on their bill by the utility.

I asked the panel what organizations are hashing out how manufacturers, utilities and consumers are rewarded for participation in a smart appliance market.

"AHAM and I are working with the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel (SGIP) and we need help," Smith said. "In the past that's been sponsored by NIST (National Institute of Science and Technology). We're asking all those questions and inviting people to comment. We need to determine the barriers to getting through. Is it technical? Is it regulatory?"

"We're in the process of collecting comments on the draft of a white paper that's sitting out on the SGIP website," added Grahm Parker, a senior staff engineer with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and UTC panel member. 

Other uncertainties remain.  

How appliances communicate with a control hub or with each other also remains to be worked out. Two things AHAM members are adamant about, according to Smith: consumers must be able to override any energy-saving commands issued by the utility and the use of "smart plugs," or "plug-load controllers," should not be endorsed. In the latter case, frequent on/off switching shortens product life, unlike ramping an appliance's use of electricity. Of course, with demand response and dynamic pricing in their infancy, smart appliances and home networks remain a work-in-progress. 

Simply engaging the customer, and to what end, remains a murky strategy. And justifiably so, according to John McDonald, director of technical strategy and policy development at GE Digital Energy, and an IEEE smart grid technical expert, who we interviewed for an article in Intelligent Utility magazine's current November/December 2012 issue, "It's the Right Thing to Do."  

"On the consumer side, I don't want to rush," McDonald told me recently. "I want to take baby steps, because we do not know [yet] how to engage consumers. We don't know what technologies we should put together. And I don't want to have even one big misstep, because it takes a lot of successful projects to overcome that one bad project. So let's take our time."

Time will at least allow many of the numerous, related, ongoing pilot projects around the country to report their results, which I'll look forward to bringing you in this space as progress on that front allows. Perhaps that will inform cogent strategies for home area networks and smart appliances. 

Phil Carson 
Intelligent Utility Daily
pcarson@energycentral.com 
303-228-7210  

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Comments

Smart Appliances

I'm not sure the right place to start is with control via smart phones, an assumption that utilities should be in control of a consumer's energy or demand management, or that anything other than temperature-sensitive loads should be on anyone's radar at the moment.

It's no secret that air conditioning and heating loads are the principal drivers of demand spikes.  While it may not be feasible to pre-heat residences and commercial buildings, it is feasible to precool them.  So the first priority of any smart appliance effort ought to be in the direction of enabling what we might call smart cooling - precooling residential and commercial structures based on a combination of expected demand and renewable energy production.  While this idea could be made to work with day-ahead forecasts of demand and electric production, it would work better with day-ahead prices that are periodically updated in response to changes in system conditions.  There's a big enough population of qualified consumers within the footprints of the country's six organized wholesale markets to make this worth pursuing.  Being able to turn off (or perhaps turn on) refrigerators, washers, electric dryers, electric water heaters and other energy-consuming appliances sounds great, but in most cases the impacts are not going to be worth the cost of the controls or appliance upgrades (which appliance manufacturers hope to charge a premium for rather than simply giving them away).

Jack Ellis, Tahoe City, CA