'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.

About the author

In a software-driven world, it's easy to forget about the nuts and bolts. Whether it's cars, robots, personal gadgetry or industrial machines, Candace Lombardi examines the moving parts that keep our world rotating. A journalist who divides her time between the United States and the United Kingdom, Lombardi has written about technology for the sites of The New York Times, CNET, USA Today, MSN, ZDNet, Silicon.com, and GameSpot. She is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not a current employee of CNET.


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