Grid-friendly gadgets

WASHINGTON, D.C.--This week's GridWeek conference here focused on the benefits of the smart grid to consumers, who can get more control over their home energy with new tech tools.

An iPad app, a home communications gateway, and perhaps a smart meter--these are all components of new home-energy management systems being developed as part of the smart grid.

This display shown here was part of an interoperability demo of the Smart Energy Profile put together by Qualcomm Atheros, which makes communications chips. The demonstration showed a hybrid communication systems that used a home broadband connection, Wi-Fi, the wireless protocol Zigbee, and data over powerline to send information between consumers and utility. (No smart meter is actually necessary--it was just there to draw people's attention.)

It's not clear which applications will be developed for this network, but this demo showed how consumers can remotely control thermostats from an Apple iPad and get rate electricity discounts by turning down power during peak times.

Photo by: Martin LaMonica/CNET

Net-connected AC controllers

The idea behind the consumer smart grid is that gathering more energy-related information will lead to applications that give consumers more control over how they use energy. Utilities are particularly interested in reducing peak-time power usage, which is the most expensive. In some cases, such as heat waves, power generators can't deliver enough power, leading to outages.

One application that has proved invaluable in getting through emergency peak periods is adjusting air conditioning units. This display from Comverge, which runs these demand-response programs, shows some of the equipment used, including smart thermostats below and an Internet gateway (the black box). Consumers choose to participate in these power curtailment programs in exchange for a rebate of some kind. Comverge recommends "cycling" air conditioners, or simply turning them off for short periods, rather than changing temperature settings because the change is less noticeable to consumers.

Photo by: Martin LaMonica/CNET

Set it and forget it

This screenshot from a Tendril demo shows a more sophisticated air-conditioning application, which lets people program a thermostat or other device, such as a pool pump, based on the price of power. A person can program the system to automatically turn off a pool pump if the price of power goes above 12 cents, for example, or adjust the thermostat when electricity prices change. People in the industry refer to this as "set it and forget it," or putting home energy on cruise control. Like with a programmable thermostat, the user can override the setting.

Photo by: Martin LaMonica/CNET

Home area networking

Here is some of the hardware needed for a "smart energy home." Above are two smart thermostats, which are able to communicate over a home network with other devices, including the two smart outlets below. Whatever is plugged into the smart outlets, including lights or appliances, can be controlled by the smart thermostat. Standards are needed to make gear from different providers work together.

The Tendril software connects to its own devices (the two on right) and works with other Zigbee-compliant hardware, such as the Ecobee smart thermostat (top left) and Think Eco's modlet (bottom left).

Photo by: Martin LaMonica/CNET

Opower iPad app

Opower this week announced a deal with Honeywell to connect Opower's home energy efficiency recommendation service with Honeywell's smart thermostats.

The combination will let people get recommendations on how to reduce energy consumption and let people remotely control thermostats from a PC, smartphone, or tablet. The application shown here is just a sales tool for Opower to show what its consumer reports look like, but the company plans to write a consumer-facing application in its partnership with Honeywell.

Photo by: Martin LaMonica/CNET

Intel inside wind

It turns out that wind turbines are smart objects, too. Intel sells microprocessors to turbine manufacturers, including Siemens and General Electric, for controlling the pitch of turbines based on wind speed, direction, and height. Some turbines can have seven or eight embedded processors to optimize power production.

Photo by: Martin LaMonica/CNET

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