In addition to smart appliances, some manufacturers will offer dashboard systems, like this one from GE, which will give homeowners at-a-glance control of their electricity use.
courtesy GE In addition to smart appliances, some manufacturers will offer dashboard systems, like this one from GE, which will give homeowners at-a-glance control of their electricity use.

The last 10 years have brought numerous technological advancements and conveniences, including wireless Internet, Web-enabled thermostats, DVRs, and even fully electric cars. However, as consumers have placed more of these new devices in ever-larger homes requiring more or larger major appliances (such as air conditioners), the demand on the nation’s energy grid has also increased. The Department of Energy estimates that in the last decade, electricity consumption has risen 25% and will increase another 26% between 2007 and 2030.

Enter the Smart Grid

In an effort to reduce electricity consumption, thereby alleviating strain on the power grid, President Obama has named the Smart Grid a priority in the nation’s energy policy. As it is, the electrical “grid” comprises everything required to generate and distribute electricity. The times of day when an area’s electricity consumption is highest are called “peak” times, while the low-demand periods are labeled “off-peak.” The Smart Grid concept is to have power generation and delivery elements, including power meters and even home appliances, interact with each other and with consumers to help reduce demands at peak load times.

“In an ideal situation, power companies would generate just enough electricity so there’s no wasted power,” explains Steve Polinski, senior manager of regulatory affairs for appliance manufacturer Miele. “When not enough power is generated to meet the demand, which is growing, we experience brownouts and blackouts.”

According to a white paper from the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM), three major blackouts in the last nine years, rolling blackouts in California’s Silicon Valley, and other occasional power interruptions are signs that electricity demand is too great for the 100-year-old grid to handle. By reducing consumption or putting off certain tasks until off-peak times, that demand can be reduced.

The units donít look futuristic, but their communication is high-tech. Miele is working nationally and internationally to help develop Smart Grid appliance standards.
courtesy Miele The units donít look futuristic, but their communication is high-tech. Miele is working nationally and internationally to help develop Smart Grid appliance standards.

Appliances Offer Smart Solutions

Besides simply turning appliances and home electronics off to reduce loads, some appliance manufacturers are developing products that will actually interact with the Smart Grid when it becomes available. “By introducing Smart Grid appliances, you’re giving control of the demand to the power providers and to the consumers so it can be managed more economically and efficiently,” Polinski says. “An appliance that advises you to wait until an off-peak time to run a cycle can really be helpful in shedding load and reducing the likelihood of brownouts.”

Miele, GE, and Whirlpool are three manufacturers that have started introducing the Smart Grid concept to their product lines, particularly in laundry, dish washing, and refrigeration. In general, if a homeowner presses the “start” button on a Smart Grid appliance during peak demand, the machine gives an alert that suggests waiting until off-peak time to run the cycle. Since utility companies may charge more during peak hours, delaying the cycle can help the homeowner save money while simultaneously reducing demand on the grid. Homeowners would have the opportunity to override the delay.

Polinski calls clothes dryers and refrigerator/freezer defrost cycles the “low-hanging fruit” of Smart Grid appliances because putting off a washing or drying cycle has little impact on the consumer. Additionally, he notes that using Smart Grid appliances is about more than just saving money on the usage side of a utility bill. “Power companies buy their power in bulk like a commodity, and they hedge against it like an investment. At some points they buy insurance that they’ll have the right amount of electricity to meet demand,” he explains. “From a financial infrastructure point of view, if consumers start using smart appliances to help create balance between peak and off-peak demand, power companies may be able to lower their insurance premiums and pass that savings onto the consumer.”

Though remodelers should be aware that Smart Grid appliances are beginning to make appearances, most appliance industry representatives believe the U.S. is several years away from being a full-fledged Smart Grid country. Details about how the appliances will communicate with the grid, consumer ease-of-use, and other details have yet to be discussed at the policy-making level.

That said, the industry continues to push its ideas about appliance interoperability forward. “We’re enthusiastic and excited about the role that smart appliances can play in the Smart Grid,” says Kevin Messner, vice president of government relations for AHAM. “The residential sector is the largest sector that consumes electricity, so you can’t have an effective Smart Grid without the residential sector, and you can’t have an effective residential sector without smart appliances.”

—Lauren Hunter, associate editor, REMODELING.

This is a longer version of an article that appeared in the April 2010 issue of REMODELING.