'Smart' appliances could ease electrical-grid woes

GE says household machines could be built to tap grids at off-peak hours if energy companies are open to communication.

Did you know there's some leeway on when a refrigerator must run its automatic defrost cycle?

Well, apparently, there is, and it could help ease the stress on local energy grids during peak hours, according to GE Consumer & Industrial.

Currently, GE refrigerators' automatic defrost modes are prompted by factors like door openings. But, the company says, it could build refrigerators that delay that cycle until a local electrical grid signals it's a good off-peak time to suck down more electricity.

Refrigerators are not the only appliances that could be programmed to wait for convenient times to run.

GE is testing a whole range of what it calls "Energy Management-Enabled Appliances" with the Louisville Gas and Electric Co. in Louisville, Ky., the company announced Wednesday. It includes ranges, washers and dryers, dishwashers, and microwaves.

The appliances are equipped with a "Smart Meter" that communicates with the local power utility, and then times itself to run during off-peak periods. Consumers are still given a choice to override the program if they want to use a particular appliance during peak hours.

The program seeks to address the nationwide problem of peak energy demand, in which electrical grids are overburdened by a consumer surge in use. It's a problem power utilities are concerned about given the rise in electric plug-in vehicles.

GE estimates that there are currently about 3,000 utilities in the U.S. Many of them are considering their energy storage options, and some are considering moving to a tiered-pricing system to encourage off-peak electricity usage. Appliances that help consumers avoid peak hours could help them save money, according to GE.

But there's a catch. In order for the appliances to work, the electrical grid they operate on must communicate with the machine's "Smart Meter."

That means utilities would have to be onboard with a standardized system that allows household appliances to communicate with their grids.

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