BY BRIAN SLOBODA
Adding or replacing insulation, using efficient lightbulbs and sealing air leaks around windows and doors are common energy efficiency tips offered by electric cooperatives – and they do save energy. But many times, these traditional energy-saving tips don’t take advantage of a growing trend in our lives: electronics, appliances and other devices that communicate to save energy.
According to the PEW Research Institute, 95 percent of U.S. families have a cell phone and 77 percent of Americans own a smart phone. Nearly 80 percent of adults own a laptop or desktop computer, while approximately half own tablets. Consumer electronics, coupled with the growing array of smart home appliances and advancing technologies, have slowly but steadily changed our homes and lifestyles.
You can control everything from a thermostat or a Crock-Pot to LED lightbulbs and your home entertainment system with a smart phone app. Manufacturers are designing these devices with the ability to run them from anywhere that has Internet access or a cell signal.
The increased reliance on our many devices has new implications for home energy use and efficiency. What if all of these devices could be tied together to produce a communication system that helps you save on your monthly electric bill? What if it was easy? What if it actually worked? In conjunction with the nation’s national laboratories, utilities across the country are working on these communication systems.
In one scenario, you would instruct your home to either maximize energy savings or maximize comfort. This would be communicated to the electric utility as it planned to meet peak energy demand. (Peak energy demand refers to the time of the day when the most energy is consumed and when the cost of electricity is most expensive.)
By using existing communication channels, your home will be able to automatically tell your electric cooperative and, perhaps, the co-op’s power supplier, how much it’s able to reduce energy consumption. The appliances inside your home will determine how to do this without your being inconvenienced or uncomfortable. Appliances will learn your family’s behavior and living patterns. Thermostats such as the Nest or Ecobee do that now by learning the routines of the people living in a home and adjusting the thermostat to save energy.
During a peak period, for example, the thermostat could raise the home’s temperature a few degrees in the summer. However, if someone happens to be home, the system will instead look for savings by slightly dimming the lights, delaying the defrost cycle on the refrigerator or slowing the pool pump. The system is designed to help both you and the co-op save energy and money, and the process will be invisible to you.
It will take years for communication systems like this to show up on store shelves, even though the necessary communication systems are already in place. These systems will depend on the Internet, but some parts may rely on the communication infrastructure that your local electric co-op is currently building and maintaining.
In fact, today’s communication system already is used to talk to a vast network of sensors and monitoring equipment that alerts the co-op to downed power lines, malfunctioning equipment and other problems that can occur. The speed and sophistication of these sensors allows the co-op to correct the problem before a large number of members experiences an outage.
The modern electric utility business is complicated and relies on a variety of systems to improve reliability. Tomorrow’s system will utilize greater communications to create additional value for both you and your electric cooperative.
Brian Sloboda is a program manager specializing in energy efficiency for Business Technology Strategies, a service of the Arlington, Va.-based National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.