LAS VEGAS--Consumer electronics companies used to tout the energy efficiency of individual gadgets. Now many want to make your whole house more efficient.
This year's Consumer Electronics Show saw a blending of the consumer electronics and the energy businesses, often in the form of a smart home filled with connected devices.
There was still plently of outwardly green gear on the show floor, such as solar-powered radios and energy-saving power strips. But CES also saw more "home of the future" displays with electric-vehicle chargers, smart appliances, efficient LED lights, and even small wind turbines and solar panels. In cars, Ford decided to introduce its electric Ford Focus, a week before a big auto show.
Consumer electronics manufacturers are already turning out millions of networked TVs, DVD players, and other electronics. Right behind them are other connected, grid-aware devices, such as thermostats, dishwashers, and electric vehicles.
For consumers, more information about usage and more control over plugged-in goods can lead to energy savings, say manufacturers. For manufacturers and energy companies, this opens up new ways to make money, potentially by offering services that complement their hardware.
Companies from different industries are approaching home energy from different angles. Manufacturers that straddle home appliances and consumer electronics, such as Panasonic, Toshiba, and LG, envision consumers controlling their HVAC, kitchen appliances, and lighting from their TVs, smart phones or PCs.
Home automation companies are eyeing a "trifecta" of services that include entertainment, security monitoring, and energy management. Rather than making tiny margins on hardware, these companies are looking to connected appliances to open the possibility for add-on services, such as applications that remotely control home entertainment systems and thermostats.
"We see home entertainment as a key driver, but energy is coming up fast. Safety and security have been there a long time," Will West, CEO of Control4, said during a panel called "Beyond the Living Room." Control4 sells software and hardware for home automation.
Simililarly, utility companies say giving consumers better information and control of their homes is a way to differentiate themselves.
NRG Energy, which owns energy retailer Reliant Energy in Texas, was a first-time exhibitor at CES, with a booth that was a simulated home. Actors played a young couple getting up-to-the-minute information on energy use and saving money by running power-hungry appliances or charging an electric Nissan Lea at off-peak times.
"We have to stop competing on price upon a commodity that everybody has the same access to," Chris Deutschen, senior manager at Direct Energy, said during a smart-grid panel. "So really we need to get into a more services model. And that's where we are looking at energy management--the home-area network as a place where we can provide services to the customer."
Manufacturers continue to improve the efficiency of TVs, PCs, and appliances, but advances are not as dramatic as they were a few years ago. To continue making significant efficiency improvements, they need to start treating the home as a connected system, industry executives said.
General Electric showed off the "connected home of the future" which includes smart appliances, an electric vehicle charger, and its Nucleus home energy management system, due later this year. It also announced an Ecomagination entrepreneurial challenge around home energy management, following its contest first focused on the power grid.
Panasonic has a stage devoted to home energy, which includes a way to monitor electricity, gas, and water from a TV. Panasonic can also provide solar panels, a fuel cell for making electricity and hot water, and backup batteries using the same lithium ion cells used in its consumer electronics.
Some other products it showed are not yet available in the U.S., including solar panels, a home battery system, and a fuel cell that makes electricity and heat for hot water from natural gas.
Toshiba, too, is preparing a suite of energy products to complement its eco-friendly laptops and TVs. Offering home energy monitoring systems, LED bulbs, and efficient air conditioners plays off of Toshiba's giant industrial energy business.
"Obviously, this is where the future is going. The grid is getting smarter and we have a speciality in this area. And there are environmental benefits," said Craig Hershberg, general manager for environmental affairs at Toshiba America.
The products for home automation and energy monitoring are maturing, but manufacturers and service providers face a host of issues before these products can take hold in large numbers.
On a technical level, there are a few different wireless home-networking methods. Many smart meters being installed are equipped with Zigbee radios. But wireless Z-Wave devices, such as locks and remote control light sockets, are already on the market, which is why Verizon chose Z-Wave for its home energy monitoring and security service.
LG decided to make its smart appliances communicate using Wi-Fi. Using power lines to control and monitor plugged-in goods is another method. Also, many homes won't ever get smart meters, so other grid-to-home network gateways are being developed.
Regulations in many areas don't create much monetary incentive for consumers to buy gear for energy management. Utilities and regulators have an interest in having consumers scale back power during critical peak times, such as hot summer days, because they can avoid bringing costly and polluting auxiliary power plants online.
In places with variable pricing, a consumer could get a cheaper rate to charge an electric car at night or have a clothes drier go into "eco mode" during a peak energy event. But in many areas, consumers pay flat rate, so there aren't savings from shifting their energy loads to the middle of the night.
The business models for tech suppliers and installers are still being worked out as well, say industry executives. Without clear savings, most consumers are unlikely to invest in energy management, and the technology has to be easy to use. Consumers also want assurances around security and privacy of energy usage data.
The tech-savvy attendees at CES appear to be interested in hearing how a smart home works. Booths at GE, Panasonic, and NRG Energy had a steady stream of visitors who heard about off-peak rates and remotely controlled thermostats. "Smart grid is the new thing," said one employee from NRG subsidiary Reliant Energy. "And there are only so many TVs you can look at."