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Energy-efficient smart grids on the cheap?

Consumers are eager for electricity usage information at home, preferably on thermostat-like devices. But the best interface for smart grids is still unclear.

Smart grid technology is touted as a way to reduce stress on the power grid and lower consumers' costs. But a study suggests that simple and relatively cheap energy meters could accomplish some of the same goals.

Energy Insight, an affiliate of IT research firm IDC, conducted a survey that confirms what most people would expect: consumers are crying out for more information on their electricity usage.

That's not surprising given the rising costs of electricity in many parts of the U.S. and growing environmental concerns.

The 283 consumers in the study voiced interest in devices that display real-time and historical energy usage. Because they act as a "feedback tool," people take steps to reduce consumption.

But rather than access that information presented on a PC, most people said that they would prefer an "in-home display" that would look something like a programmable thermostat.

There are some of these stripped-down devices on the market already. They cost between $100 and $300 and could reduce electricity consumption by up to 10 percent, according to Energy Insights.

In-home displays may not have all the bells and whistles of more sophisticated meters that broker communication between a home and the utility, which are referred to as Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI). But simpler devices are enough for some consumers, according to one of the report's authors.

"Meter company devices are still a bit more utility-centric and geared toward demand response," said Karen Blackmore, an analyst at Energy Insights. "Some consumers are perfectly willing to have a little device, perhaps with a touch screen or one that displays on TV."

Test programs under way
There are a number of pilot projects going on in the U.S. to test smart grid technology, including one in Texas with CenterPoint Energy and IBM. A $100 million project was recently proposed for Boulder, Colo., led by Xcel Energy.

As part of the GridWise initiative to modernize the U.S. power grid, the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest Laboratory conducted a year-long study in the Seattle area last year and found that consumers were able to reduce their energy consumption by about 10 percent with smart grid technology.

In these installations, utilities offer consumers incentives to lower their consumption and have an automated way to remotely control appliances via the Internet or cell phone networks. For example, households that sign up for the efficiency program would get some sort of discount for allowing the utility to raise the thermostat on an air conditioner during times of heavy demand on the grid.

Consumers lower their energy bills and can get detailed reports on their usage trends, such as which devices in the home consume the most power.

There are also significant benefits for the utility and the transmission grid. By dialing down consumption at peak times, utilities can avoid turning on costly--and typically very polluted--auxiliary power plants.

Although the technology is compelling, the cost of installing the infrastructure is expensive for utilities, one reason that smart grids are not yet pervasive.

Delivering usage information via the Web
The simplest in-home displays are cheaper but have limitations. Without a utility-run program and advanced meter, they will not be able to automatically dial down home appliances. Also, devices with small screens can project little usage information.

That's why sophisticated displays that can represent information graphically are needed to get consumers to make changes and manage their overall consumption, said Jesse Berst, founding editor of the Smart Grid Newsletter.

For example, he said that there are some devices that turn red when the cost of energy goes up during peak time. "But with just a red light, I don't see myself getting up from the couch to turn things off," he said.

Berst said even after years of research, it's still not clear what would make the most effective display even after years of study.

Energy Insight's Blackmore agreed that most effective in-home displays will work in conjunction with smart meters and utilities' energy-efficiency incentive programs. She said that increasingly, delivering usage information via the Web will become more prevalent.

One possible Internet-connected system would be home gateways, or home automation devices that control several things in a home, including computers, appliances, security systems, and energy usage.

"The core is letting you significantly reduce your energy expenditures by programming some simple parameters and letting the (gateway) devices do the negotiation of turning appliances on and off and so forth," Berst said. "Part of that will probably be in conjunction with a utility."