Home Energy Management Systems Ready for Drive Time?
Why HEMS are being test-driven by car companies.
May 09, 2012 by Steven Castle

With all of the technology at our disposal today—home control systems, wired and wireless networking, streaming media, energy monitors, automated lighting and shading, smartphone connectivity—you’d think that our houses would be a whole lot “smarter” and able to manage our home lives more effectively and efficiently.

That’s what, of all things, some car companies are looking into. Honda has announced a test home in Japan to try out the company’s Honda Smart Home System (HSHS), pairing it with a thin-film solar electric system, a gas engine cogeneration system, and electric vehicle (EV) charging. The carmaker hopes to use the house to reduce CO2 emissions by 50 percent.

Honda’s not the first to start testing the overall home system effects of electric vehicle charging. German automaker BMW has teamed with smart grid software company Tendril on a test facility in Mountain View, Calif., to do much of the same thing and work with utility Pacific Gas & Electric on identifying the best rate structures for times when a lot of EVs are charging. Many utilities plan to introduce Time of Use pricing that varies during the day, depending on demand, so peak rate periods such as the time we all come home and charge our electric cars will be priced higher than late-night rates, for example.

As soon as you plug in a car to be charged, it will become the biggest energy draw in your home, and car companies are concerned that a home’s circuitry may not be able to accommodate car charging while other appliances and big-energy draws like an air conditioner or a pool pump are also running, says Kent Dickson, chief technology officer at Tendril, in a Pike Research webcast on Home Energy Management Systems (HEMS): Beyond the Hype. Big loads resulting from EV charging, AC and other demands could also affect utility transformers that serve several houses.

This is where the “orchestration” of a home energy management system—whether located inside the house or in the cloud—will become so important, says Dickson. We’ll need a device that knows what’s on in a home, what the utility rates are, and how to shift loads or otherwise accommodate all the demands on a system.

That’s what Honda will try out with its Smart e Mix Manager that is connected to the thin-film CIGS (copper, indium, gallium, selenium) solar array, a gas cogeneration unit, and other systems in the home. According to Honda:

The Smart e Mix Manager obtains the operation information of each energy device and coordinates each of the devices that compose the HSHS, while it analyzes total household energy usage.

In effect, such units will weigh all the variables: car charging, appliance needs, AC, pool pump, how much energy is being produced by a solar array, fuel cell or generator—and make intelligent and automated decisions on the best times to charge the car, lowering the lights or AC to accommodate a car charging, or even using the car’s batteries as an energy resource to power systems in the house.

Panasonic, Toshiba and Samsung showed similar systems at CES as well, and Toshiba promised its own Life Design Box  by the end of the year.

Ready for Prime Time or Drive Time?

But are these super-smart home systems a reality—or just a lot of hype and vaporware? In its webcast, Pike Research says that despite about 47 percent of survey respondents wanting HEMS and a majority willing pay a one-time fee or a subscription for energy management services, it appears that HEMS for most of us is still a few years away.

So what’s the holdup, if the technology is available now?

Just look at the e Mix Manager in this Honda video and consider how much that form factor may change by the time it actually makes it to market—and if it does. The device is also functioning as a vehicle charger, but it recalls those early brick-size cell phones from decades past. Surely some product evolution is in order.

More seriously, the two biggest drivers for home energy management systems may well be the utilities, most of which are still conducting pilot programs for their smart grid rollouts, and electric vehicles, which likely won’t become mainstream until later this decade. And that, perhaps not so coincidentally, is when most forecasters believe the energy management or HEMS market will take off.

By 2020, Pike says, HEMS will be a multibillion-dollar business. But getting there will be a slow, steady march. Along the way, look for a lot of interesting developments—and not just from big consumer electronics players like Samsung, Toshiba and Panasonic, but from the car companies as well. And some cool smart home stuff for eager early adopters.

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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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