GE, Tendril Team for Smart Grid Appliances
GE and Tendril to create money-saving, networked appliances. When will we see them?
GE Smart Fridge
July 09, 2009 by Steven Castle

In our smart grid future, we’ll see smart appliances that can shut off when an electric utility reaches peak capacity. That will save us money on increased time-of-use rates. And this will happen.

But what about even smarter appliances that give us options, like whether to delay that dish washing until later at night when the rates go down, or still dry your clothes, but at a lower power level?

GE says it could bring such appliances to the market by the end of the year. To do so, GE has partnered with Tendril, a smart grid start-up that has developed a home-based energy management system called the Tendril Residential Energy Ecosystem (TREE) that will allow GE’s smart appliances to communicate over a broadband or smart meter network.

Tendril’s Energy Management System

Tendril’s TREE provides integration to any wireless ZigBee-equipped Smart Energy-certified product for the home. It uses a display and gateway that plugs into an existing Internet router. Tendril says the devices are smart enough to find each other and the electric meter to form a home network. Users can then log into the consumer portal from a computer to monitor their energy consumption. For now, TREE is available only through utilities running pilot programs, but Tendril says it is looking into offering direct-to-consumer products as well.

For GE’s smart appliances, Tendril’s TREE system will provide processing for security information exchanges with the utility and real-time information like variable rate pricing, so the appliance can run, be turned off, or run at a lower power state depending on the electric rate, for instance.

One TREE configuration can work with a one-way meter that can be read by drive-bys RF and which are on many houses. A device located in the home reads the meter, sends that information via wireless ZigBee radio frequency to a processor that plugs into your Internet router, so you can see your consumption on a computer. The other configuration requires a two-way smart meter that can send home electricity usage data back to an electric utility. Utilities have incentives to reduce electrical demand during peak load periods, typically from 3 pm to 8 pm when people come home and use electricity — especially in the summer when air conditioners are fired up. (And in the future when electric cars are charged.)

Varied pricing of electricity, depending on the time of day, is likely to be implemented by many utilities to recover the costs of buying extra power and to encourage people to save energy during these periods. That’s where smart grid technology comes in, likely using demand-side management, also called demand response, in which the utilities can shut off or power down home appliances in exchange for rate savings.

Tendril provides consumers with Web access to see and compare electricity usage.

Smart Grid Appliances of the Future

Here are some of the smart appliances we could see:

  • A refrigerator that delays the defrost cycle during peak periods and goes into energy-saving mode
  • A microwave that reduces wattage used when operated during peak hours
  • A “smart” dishwasher that can delay starting the cycle to off peak times
  • Smart clothes dryer that reduces its power use by 50 percent during peak load periods
  • A hybrid electric hot water heater (which also absorbs heat in ambient air and transfers it into the water) that reduces power requirements by up to 80 percent

“Our goal is to give the consumer control. For example, a smart dishwasher will give you the option to delay the cycle,” says GE spokesperson Kim Freeman. “A lot of appliances can turn on or off, but what we want to do is not disrupt people’s lifestyles.”

Smart appliances with ZigBee or another communications technology will certainly be priced with a premium, which Freeman expects to be similar to the difference between Energy Star-rated and non-Energy Star-rated products.

And although this technology is available now … er … we can’t have it yet. “We really need to wait for time-of-use pricing before we start distributing products,” says Freeman. “It’s a chicken and egg thing. We’re ready and we have the technology.”

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Steven Castle - Contributing Writer
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.

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