We recently posed the question, how will we manage energy in our homes? Will it be more of a targeted, device-by-device solution or something that’s addressed by a whole-house energy management and control system?
GE is looking at both ways, but seems to be leaning toward the whole-house solution. At the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the company shot-gunned “Connected Home” energy solutions from a wind turbine to its new Nucleus energy monitoring system to smart appliances.
“We think of it more as the empowered home, where you can collectively manage the loads in your house and appliances,” says Mike Beyerle, a marketing manager at GE.
While Beyerle believes there’s nothing wrong with targeting certain devices or appliances, he thinks the whole-home approach has clear advantages. “We’re squeezing the energy down so low on some appliances, we need to find another solution to save energy,” he explains. “When you look at bigger picture, a single source solution is not enough. If you tell people you will get them 10 percent savings, that may be only $3 or $4, and how much do I care about that? We’re looking at ways to prove benefits to consumers in terms of cost. Then the connected home element comes into play.”
As we addressed in the previous article as well, perhaps there’s a transition that will take place from initial single-source solutions to more encompassing, whole-home energy management? “I think we’re at that transition point right now,” says Beyerle. “People want to see a little bit more of that connected home, and see their energy use, and maybe produce their own energy as well, and the picture broadens a bit. Technology is getting robust enough and inexpensive enough that people can afford to do more of these things.”
The Whole-House Solution
GE’s Nucleus energy manager may well address that. The device plugs into any electrical outlet and receives a signal from a smart grid-connected two-way smart meter via ZigBee wireless technology, to record electricity usage data and send it via wired Ethernet or Wi-Fi to a computer or other device, like its energy display. Nucleus can hold three years worth of data.
Nucleus is first being made available first to GE’s smart grid pilot partners. And although GE said in an earlier release that Nucleus could be made available to consumers in the second half of 2011 at a retail price of $149 to $199, Beyerle expects a version that won’t rely on smart grid connectivity to be available through retail outlets in 2012. A smart grid-free system will likely get energy consumption data from current transformers (CTs) that attach to a home’s electrical mains at the circuit panel.
“The first step is to educate the consumer: How much energy is being used at that time? Then you can stream the ongoing data [to a computer or other device], or upload it to the GE server, if you want.” Later, Beyerle explains, Nucleus could be used to control appliances or smart thermostats.
The unit has three radios, two ZigBee radios for communicating with a smart meter and smart appliances, and a Wi-Fi wireless radio to transmit data over a home network. There is also an Ethernet jack for wired networks.
Smart Appliances More Targeted?
GE also plans to introduce a whole suite of Profile smart appliances, though they will only be made available this year through GE’s smart grid pilot programs with companies like Reliant Energy in Texas, Louisville Gas & Electric, and the Vineyard Energy Project (VEP) on the island of Martha’s Vineyard.
Beyerle says GE is looking to make its smart appliances available to consumers, but is trying to find locations where utilities are using Time of Use pricing with their smart grid rollouts. Time of Use pricing sets the electric rates per the time of day, so peak load periods such as 3 pm to 8 pm are priced higher.
The biggest money savings—or the most compelling reason—for consumers to buy smart appliances will be load shifting, so the dishwasher or clothes washer can be set to run when the rates are lower, Beyerle explains. “It’s really going to be about the dollars for consumers,” he says.
Kitchen appliance brands Sub-Zero and Wolf recently showed grid-free connected fridges, stoves and wine coolers that can be controlled by a Control4 home network. These can be used for some load shifting, though these grid-free connected appliances offer more convenience features like alerts while cooking or making more ice for a party, for example.
Grid-connected smart meters will be able transmit data to smart appliances, so users can look at a small LCD readout and decide if they want to wash the dishes now or later, when there may be a cheaper utility rate.
In many cases, the smart meter will be able to send this data directly to a smart appliance. So will a whole-home control and energy management system even be needed?
Some people, Beyerle says, will want to just trust the system between a smart meter and smart appliances, but others will want a little more control, and that’s where systems like the Nucleus comes in.
It’s too bad we can’t run out and buy smart appliances right now. “We really need a market transformation for this stuff to work very well,” Beyerle says. “We need smart meters and Time of Use pricing in place. It’s going to take a while.”
Which why you can’t expect to see GE smart appliances on sale to the general public until 2012.
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Steven Castle is Electronic House's managing editor. he has been writing about consumer electronics, homes and energy efficiency topics for two decades. He is also the co-founder of GreenTech Advocates