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Intel Research eyes home energy, building efficiency

After dabbling with a high-end energy dashboard, Intel Labs shows off a stripped-down, easy-to-install gadget that monitors energy by reading the electrical signature of appliances.

When it comes to energy, Intel's biggest concern is keeping a lid on the power used at giant data centers. But Intel researchers are seriously looking at home energy as well.

During the Research@Intel conference yesterday in Mountain View, Calif., Intel set up a Personal Energy Zone that showcased its efforts to use computing to improve efficiency and boost the use of renewable energy sources.

One demonstration scheduled to go into trials soon is the Wireless Energy Sensing Technology (WEST), a device that plugs into a socket and uses a home wireless network to report power usage of individual items.

The device recognizes the "signatures" of major electrical loads in a home and will transmit the information to a PC, smartphone, or TV. The WEST prototype Intel showed is a box about the size of soda bottle that plugs into a regular electrical outlet.

Because large appliances, such as a refrigerator or air conditioner, make up the bulk of home energy use, getting better information on them will help people use them more efficiently. For example, the device could help someone better set the thermostat settings or find electronics that are on when no one is using them. During a demonstration, an Intel researcher said more detailed monitoring could reduce energy consumption by 15 percent and higher.

Other demonstrations in the Personal Energy Zone of the conference included Eco-Sense Buildings, which use sensors to monitor indoor conditions such as temperature and occupancy. By gathering data from sensors and building management systems, Intel expects that buildings that are net generators of energy are possible.

Another area of research ties large-scale renewable energy with data centers. Getting renewable energy penetration on the grid beyond 30 percent is difficult because solar and wind vary, which makes it difficult for grid operators to ensure a stable supply of power. Intel is researching to see if the varying output of solar farms can be synchronized with data center electricity loads, so they would scale down power use when a solar farm's output drops.

Home energy challenge
Intel has been dabbling in home energy for a few years now and has signed on some companies to use its chips for touch-screen display for managing energy, home security, and media. Until now, Intel has largely talked about home energy and efficiency as an application that can be part of a home-automation system.

For example, Intel researchers have shown a prototype home energy dashboard that works with a smart meter for people to view energy data, control appliances, and do a few other tasks like leaving video messages for each other. It also published a reference design in the hopes of getting third-party companies to build add-on applications.

One advantage of Intel's plug-in sensor approach is that the installation is straightforward and should cost less than more complex alternatives. It could also tie into Intel's Home Energy Management System dashboard, the company said. Intel is one of many companies trying to make home energy management systems, including Cisco, Tendril Networks, and Control4, which are selling largely through utilities.

Home energy monitor makers say the devices are effective in shaving overall and peak-time energy usage. But one of the challenges with energy dashboards is the cost, which can be several hundred dollars, posing a challenge to direct consumer sales even with savings through energy efficiency. Another ongoing question is how actively consumers will be involved in energy beyond the occasional glance at bills.

There are already a number of whole-home energy monitors, which use different methods for surfacing information. Some get room-by-room energy profiles by attaching clamps onto wires going into a home's circuit box, which in many cases will require an electrician to set up. The PowerCost Monitor uses optical sensors attached to electricity meter, which can be done quickly, but it doesn't provide device-level usage information.

Another approach technology companies are pursuing is smart plugs that monitor power consumption. ThinkEco, for example, is coming out this year with a plug that will monitor energy and report it to a laptop over Zigbee wireless networks. Belkin purchased a small technology company that also has a system to recognize individual loads over a home's wirings, but that technology has not yet been put into a product.