By Bernie Woodall
Jerry Brous's clothes dryer is smarter than yours. And his water
heater has a mind of its own. So will yours, in about 10 years' time,
say power industry experts.
"Smart" appliances like the ones Brous has in his house on the Olympic
Peninsula in Washington are built with computer chips which allow them
to communicate, via the Internet, with the local power company.
Based on boundaries set by Brous on a Web site devoted to the test
program run by the federal government in coordination with local
utilities and several participating companies, his appliances shut
down, turn on, or take a break when electricity prices or strain on
the power grid are high.
"It's really easy to set up," said Brous, 66, who lives in Sequim,
Washington, with his wife, Pat. "And once you set it up, all I have to
do is look on the computer to see how much electricity I'm using and I
can adjust my setting any time I want."
The Brouses are participating in a test program in Washington and
Oregon run by the U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest
National Laboratory. Their house has been outfitted with a "smart"
dryer, water heater and thermostat for heating and cooling.
"I figure we've cut about 15 percent from my electricity bill," said Brous.
Individual savings add up, which can help keep down the need to build
more expensive power plants and transmission lines, as well as cutting
back on greenhouse gases that cause global warming, said Rob Pratt,
director of the GridWise test in which Brous is participating.
What differentiates the Pacific Northwest experiment from similar
energy-efficiency tests is the connection with local utilities that
guide energy use, said Pratt.
A key component is a "home gateway," or small computer made by
Invensys Plc. (ISYS.L), that rests between the Brouses' computer and
their broadband connection.
"It grabs messages from the Internet (about power use and power
prices) and sends signals to the smart thermostat and load controller
for the water heater," said Pratt.
Sometimes, the signals to save power send the temperature in his house
too low, Brous said.
"Once in a while, I override them," said Brous. "I did that a lot more
in the beginning. I can change that on the computer. I just hook up
with their Web site and change the settings. It's really easy."
The power company can send a cue for the dryer's heating element to
take a break when the power grid is strained.
"I don't even notice when that happens," said Brous, who says that the
dryer's tumbler keeps tumbling as the energy-sapping part of the
The water heater and heating and cooling system also can take breaks
at times of heavy energy use. But the element that is more likely to
save energy is the cut in costs.
The interconnection with the utilities includes price reports that
tell the Brouses when it will cost them to keep appliances running
"I've shown this system off to just about everybody who comes to the
house," said Brous, a retired transportation manager for U.S. Steel.
"Everybody wants it. So I think it's going to be commonplace one day."
Within 10 years, power grids passing information back and forth with
smart home appliances may save enough energy during peak electricity
demand to keep utilities from building expensive substations and major
transmission lines, said Pratt.
There was a day when homes with color TVs or push-button telephones
were cause for neighborhood celebrity of the kind now enjoyed by Jerry
But having a smart dryer connected to the Internet will be so ho-hum
in a few years.
"The concept of automated interactive communication and control is
extremely powerful, and many believe that networked intelligence will
eventually come to dominate daily life," said a report on trends in
energy efficiency by the Electric Power Research Institute.
It costs about $1,000, on average, to outfit a home for the GridWise
study, but that cost includes the price of research unique to this study.
Within a few years, as the technology becomes common, that cost is
expected to drop to $200 per customer, said Pratt.
Copyright 2007 Reuters Limited.
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