July 15, 2008
| by Steven Castle
What’s the key to saving energy in the home? The answer, believe it or not, may come from electric utilities that sell you electricity and plug-in hybrid electric cars that will use your home’s energy.
If GridPoint, a developer of a SmartGrid technology targeted at electric utilities, has its way, utilities will become the gateway for energy monitoring systems in the home, by installing the technology that tracks a house’s energy use. Studies have shown that homeowners with access to information about the amount of energy they are consuming can save 10 percent or more in electricity.
The utility has a stake in that information, too. “We can take [a household’s energy usage] data, track it over time and forecast what future use might be [over many residences], so the utility can estimate how much power it needs,” says Karl Lewis, GridPoint’s executive vice president and chief operating officer.
GridPoint’s SmartGrid system consists of computer chip-like Energy Manager node that monitors the energy use of a home and connects to the utility and a control device in the home.
The company has sold some $12,000 Energy Management Appliances that collect data on a home’s energy use and store extra electricity that is produced from a solar panel array. The data can be displayed on a computer screen or web tablet by going to a secure page on a GridPoint web site. But now GridPoint is moving toward providing electric utilities with its technology, which it believes will make it far less expensive for homeowners to monitor their energy use. In fact, the utility may give you GridPoint’s technology.
So why would electric utilities want homeowners to conserve energy? Government regulations as well as the high costs of producing energy during “peak” usage periods that cause blackouts and brownouts are making it far more attractive for utilities to conserve. “Conservation takes the peak out of your network, and the peak is the most expensive energy,” says Lewis. “ [A utility today] gets two to four times the benefit of energy conservation versus its production.”
To reduce those dangerous and expensive peak loads, utilities are considering and implementing variable pricing plans, in which electricity is more expensive during peak periods such as daytimes, and demand-side management (also known as energy demand management), in which customers volunteer to have the utility turn off certain large electric loads such as a clothes washer or dryer during peak usage times, likely in exchange for a discounted rate. Such a smart, two-way communication between a home and utility requires advanced “smart” meters and technologies such as those touted by GridPoint.
Xcel Energy Co. is already using GridPoint’s technology to set up a SmartGridCity in Boulder, CO. The project aims to provide residents services such as demand-side management, online energy monitoring, instant backup power through advanced batteries, plug-and-play solar system integration, and smart charging of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. Xcel will be able to provide plug-in hybrid owners reduced rates for charging their vehicles during off-peak hours.
Plugging in hybrids and picking the right time to charge them may seem pie-in-the-sky, but GridPoint sees it as being a tipping point in household energy conservation. “Plug in hybrids are of huge importance to utilities because there’s a push for them,” says Lewis. “That market’s only two years away, and you know everyone will be plugging in their cars at peak times.
“It is the killer app for this. It’s the thing that will force change.”
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