Smarter homes: comfortable, convenient and climate-friendly

States could go a long way toward meeting targets for reduced power plant emissions under the Clean Power Plan just by encouraging energy efficiency. One way to do that is to deploy more “intelligent efficiency” solutions at home. Interconnected systems and smart devices could not only help reduce energy use and climate-altering emissions, but also empower consumers to make money-saving choices.

More than 20 percent of U.S. greenhouse gases comes from the residential sector – where we use about 1.4 trillion kWh of electricity annually to power our heating and cooling systems, appliances and electronics. Although we pay for it all, a lot of that electricity is wasted. Tried-and-true solutions like weatherization and more efficient light bulbs will continue to be common sense solutions. But increasingly, homeowners, innovators, and policy makers are looking to leverage the average home’s 25 devices to reduce that waste.

So what is “intelligent” efficiency? More than just installing a high-efficiency washer, intelligent efficiency solutions involve that washer being part of a networked home management system. This means that eventually, you could automate and manage all of the appliances, devices, and heating and cooling in your home through the internet or an app. You will be able to turn down your thermostat and water heater as you board a flight for vacation. You’ll be alerted about which appliances are using too much energy, and how you can save money by shifting the times they run. You’ll also have a projection of your energy costs as the month goes on—reducing those painful cases of “bill shock.”

Intelligent efficiency solutions fall into three main categories, and their value compounds when all three work together:

Systems/Network: Smart meters and grid

Advancements in meters and grid components allow for a two-way flow of information between the customer and electricity provider. As utilities begin to deploy these technologies, they will likely roll out new residential programs that are made possible with better insights gleaned from data, such as time-of-use pricing to reduce peak demand or targeted, behavior-based efficiency programs.

Devices: Smart thermostats, appliances and lighting

In addition to smart thermostats that can be controlled through a web platform, manufacturers are now introducing water heaters, washing machines, and even LED bulbs with advanced controls.

Platforms/Analytics: Home energy reports, real-time dashboards

The smart devices described above are being designed for integration into home energy management platforms with increasingly sophisticated analytics capabilities. These platforms can give consumers personalized home energy reports, user-friendly dashboards that update in real-time, and more, ultimately creating simple portals for a household to manage its energy consumption.

Although the pace of intelligent efficiency advancements is quickening, availability in the residential sector is uneven, and adoption is slow. However, several strategies could lead to greater uptake. For example, retailer and consumer education about benefits and security issues is needed. Putting in place the right incentives will also increase the rate of adoption by homeowners. States, utilities, cities and businesses are trying a number of strategies to promote market deployment, including:

  • Consumer rebates for energy-efficient appliances and devices. Some utilities, such as National Grid, are partnering with Nest to provide customers with rebates on a new thermostat and the opportunity to join additional money-saving efficiency programs like Rush Hour Rewards.
  • Point-of-sale educational programs that build expertise among influential consumer-facing groups such as home store sales associates and energy audit companies. The New York-based utility NYSERDA delivered a training program to help sales associates at home stores speak knowledgeably about LED bulbs.
  • Demand response programs that help customers tailor their energy use for maximum savings. As more utilities invest in smart meters and grids, more consumers will be able to schedule appliance or water heater cycles to avoid peak rate times and lower their bill.
  • Behavioral demand response programs that use consumption data, behavioral science and targeted communication to influence residential electricity use. These programs can be as simple as sending messages asking consumers to reduce their use on a hot day, a strategy employed by O-Power and several utility partners last summer that achieved a 5% electricity reduction.
  • Community-based programs that leverage existing social networks to support pilot programs. This approach provides both scale and consistency for testing innovative home technologies and has been successfully implemented in Austin by Pecan Street and in other cities.

There is also room for innovative approaches to increase adoption of intelligent efficiency. PSEG’s Ralph Izzo suggests utilities could be the channel through which consumers learn of and acquire such technologies. This approach would lower barriers for consumers, and provide a compelling business case for their electricity provider.

Intelligent efficiency solutions are emerging at a critical time for U.S. energy policy, but there are still obstacles. States that incorporate these strategies into their implementation of the Clean Power Plan would need consistent evaluation, measurement, and verification standards. In addition, facilitated discussions between states, cities, and the private sector could help ensure that technology solutions are optimally designed and implemented.