REMODELING: How widespread is the implementation of smart meters in the U.S.?

Lisa Wood: Smart meter deployments are happening. Our estimate is that there are 35 million smart meters deployed, and by 2015 we’ll have 65 million — about half of all U.S. households. So it just depends on where you’re located.

The idea would be that you have a smart house and everything is smart — smart meter, thermostat, appliances, and everything is communicating, so when you walk out the door your plug load goes to zero. That’s not that far away. And then you have distributed power … you have solar on your rooftop. One thing is the energy-efficiency savings; the other piece of it is shifting load off-peak: you have two-way communication between the household and the grid and two-way power flow.

The movement is smart meter first, then smart thermostat, and then smart appliances. “Smart” doesn’t mean the thermostat is just programmable, it means it can communicate with the smart meter and with other technologies — those things are really being marketed to the utilities right now.

Contractors wouldn’t really know about that unless they’re somehow engaged with utilities. But the utilities have a lot of programs for retrofitting, so that’s the loop. I would tell remodelers: Call your utility. Get on your utility’s website and look at efficiency programs. That’s where you’ll find the person at the utility you should talk to.

RM: So, is all smart meter technology essentially the same?

LW: Yes. There are five or six meter companies that supply smart meters. The big thing with all this is the meter’s ability to communicate with the other pieces — products from other companies.


RM: How far along are we with smart communicating thermostats in homes?

LW: It’s not pervasive. It’s pretty much in pilot stage. But it is a problem bringing it all together because the big companies — like Honeywell — which have a huge market share … are still selling all kinds of thermostats.
Then on the other side of this you have Whirlpool and appliance manufacturers starting to make appliances that are smart  and have chips in them that allow all this stuff to work together. So in some ways there’s a business for small contractors to understand and recommend what the right pieces are — and as people start to replace appliances they will have this smart component in them.

RM: So how does this market work? I mean, smart appliances and all.

LW: Contractors are not calling up a company like [smart thermostat manufacturer] Energate  and saying, “Hey, I want your thermostat,” because Energate hasn’t marketed itself to the remodeling market. It has marketed itself to the utilities because it’s hard to market yourself to the remodeling market … it’s a much more disparate audience.

RM: How do remodelers whose clients are interested in energy efficiency get into this?

LW: One way for remodelers to hook in to this is through their utility. What they can bring to the table for their client is to say, “Look, I know that you’re a Pepco customer, and Pepco has rebates for this and for these appliances, etc. So, when you remodel your house, this is the way we’re going to do it.” That’s a value-add for the customer. So that’s one thing that remodelers can do to help and also to start to educate themselves about what’s actually happening. But it’s not easy because it’s still preliminary.


RM: Say I’m a remodeler, and I have a client who has a smart meter in place through their utility, and now I want to get some smart appliances, a smart thermostat, etc. Is it worth doing that now and what steps would I take?

LW: The first thing to do would be to get the smart thermostat [which] should be done through the utility, so you get one that can communicate … with the meter and provide information to the homeowner. And they’re not all going to communicate with the meter. So that’s a big thing … when you start looking at the smart grid space; there are all these companies, thousands of companies, and they say, “Yeah, it all works together.” No, that’s not the case.

The second thing to consider is which smart appliances are actually available in the market … the idea of putting these chips in the appliances is that they will be able to communicate. The utility can send a price signal to the meter or, in the case of the smart appliance, that price signal can go directly to the appliance. I don’t know if anybody has that in place right now, but that’s the idea for the future.

But there’s no reason why, if you’re replacing your appliances now, you shouldn’t opt for a smart appliance because appliances are there for 10 to 15 years, and they’re smart-ready. Then, once your utility deploys smart meters, you’re all set with your smart appliances.

RM: So what about in-home displays?

LW: I really don’t see a market for in-home displays. People talk about wanting them, but I think that’s really a dead market. Smart meters are going to happen. And if you’re a technology company, you’re going to go where the market is going and is growing the fastest.

RM: Can homeowners manage their own energy without smart meter technology?

LW: It depends on what you mean by “home energy management.” You may have the programmable thermostat, but you’re not getting any information from it. With the meters that exist today … once a month there’s a read that shows you’ve used x number of kilowatt hours, and here’s your bill. So if you want to manage your energy and find out details about daily or weekly usage, set goals, and that kind of thing, you need some way to record the usage. That’s what smart meters do.

RM: So are smart meters and smart appliances the “tip of the iceberg” as far as what’s coming?

LW: Yes. I think it’s safe to say that this is an electric revolution in the sense that we’re digitizing electricity just like we digitized telecom. It unleashed a whole lot of things that nobody thought about 10 years ago.

Institute for Electric Efficiency, Washington, D.C.

This is a longer version of an interview that appeared in the June 2012 issue of REMODELING.

Read more REMODELING articles about smart technology:
Getting Smarter — Coming to a home near you: utility-provided Smart Meters
Smart Grid Update — The futuristic-sounding Smart Grid concept is top-of-mind for appliance manufacturers