In 2024, You Can Take Control of Your Home's Energy
The latest smart home technology lets you see and determine exactly where your electricity is going, often at the tap of a button.
Most Americans have a fairly good idea of their financial situation, but what about their energy situation?
With money, this is pretty simple: You know how much money you make. You know, generally, about how much money you spend -- and what you spend it on.
Like money, energy also flows in and out of your life. You're almost certainly using energy of some kind -- electricity, natural gas or a stack of split logs on the woodpile -- to provide heating and cooling, lighting and power for all your gadgets.
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You use that energy every day but it's a lot harder to track than money. Your bank statement tells you that you spent $38 on sushi takeout on Nov. 13, but your power bill isn't as specific. Sure, you can see how many kilowatt-hours of electricity you consume on a given day, but you don't know how much the big-screen TV used and how much was used by the coffee maker.
That's starting to change, and in 2024, we're able to be more cognizant of our energy use. The growing climate emergency has many people thinking not just about their direct use of fossil fuels -- your gasoline car or your natural gas furnace -- but about the sources of their electricity. Is your new EV powered by electrons that came from a coal-fired power plant or from a renewable source like solar panels?
Emerging technologies already on the market and those coming in 2024 and beyond offer a better look at your home's energy use and more control over it. Consider an example from Randy Johnson, senior manager of inside sales for SPAN, a company that makes smart electrical panels. Part of his pitch to CNET at RE+, a renewable energy industry conference in September, was that he learned from his smart panel that his aging refrigerator was using more electricity than the heat pump that heated and cooled his house.
"One thing that people are constantly appalled by is how much they're paying for electricity," Johnson said. "So [a smart electrical panel] gives you the insight and understanding as to what your energy behavior is."
The value of that detailed view of your energy use has been reinforced not just by energy experts, but during our regular reporting on home energy and utilities issues. We've seen firsthand the technology that can bring it to you.
Whether you want to control where your power comes from, know how much you're using or figure out exactly where it's going, you might soon have tools at your fingertips that make your energy budget as clear as your financial one.
The way we get and use electricity is changing
The old energy model was fairly simple: When you needed electricity, you got it from a wire running through a series of substations and connections to a power plant. The power plant probably generated electricity by burning coal or natural gas. Every month, you'd get a bill telling you how much electricity you used and how much it cost.
That's still the way it works in a lot of places, but in 2024, it's no longer the only model. Emerging technologies in the energy industry are making it easier for you to influence your consumption patterns and control where you get your energy from.
Make your own electricity at home with solar
Solar panels are nothing new. Jimmy Carter put some on the White House in the 1970s. Manufacturing improvements and new tax credits and incentives have made them more accessible for homeowners. With solar panels, you know exactly where your power is coming from. This is a revolutionary change to the old energy system.
"We've gone from a model of centralized generation -- the utility generates energy, that energy gets pushed out to the edge, it gets used by you, me, a [commercial or industrial] customer -- to one that's far more distributed," said Ruben Llanes, CEO of AutoGrid, a clean energy software company.
Time of use rates: Why it matters when you run the dishwasher
The idea of getting power from your own clean sources might be all the encouragement you need. Utilities and regulators in some parts of the country are introducing complications to the energy-buying process that might give you even more incentive to take matters into your own hands. They're called time-of-use rates.
Time-of-use rates are pretty straightforward: When energy demand is higher relative to supply, energy costs more. Instead of paying one flat rate per kilowatt-hour of power no matter when you use it, you might pay 15 cents during sunny parts of the day and 40 cents in the evening when everyone gets home from work and turns on all their appliances.
This is where something like a home battery with some high-tech software comes in. A battery can charge when and how it makes the most financial sense, whether that's off your solar panels or from the grid when power is cheap. Then it powers your home when electricity prices are higher.
"It's designed to consume the best [way] so that you use it during the most expensive time, so that you don't waste money," said JD Dillon, chief marketing officer at Tigo, a battery and software firm.
Varying prices also affect issues like when you charge your electric vehicle. You don't want to charge it when electricity prices are their highest. To get the most bang for your buck in 2024 and beyond, be conscientious about what time of day your car is charging. Fortunately, most EVs already make it easy to schedule when they charge.
Home batteries: Say goodbye to blackouts
Power outages are a fact of life. Depending on where you live, they can be a fairly common fact of life. The average American electricity customer went through seven hours of outages in 2021, with the average outage lasting about two hours. Severe weather meant longer outages for those in some states, including Texas and Louisiana.
Consider that the typical American home uses about 30kWh of energy per day. A Tesla Powerwall, which will cost you around $10,000, holds 13.5kWh -- less than 12 hours. You don't have to run everything when the power is out. Maybe you need only the refrigerator or the air conditioner. That can keep what you need going much longer, stretching your battery life and reducing the odds that you have to throw away everything in your refrigerator.
While some home batteries can triage what uses power in a blackout, there's another tool you may want to consider.
Old circuit breakers are out. Smart panels are in
Somewhere in your home is a metal box full of switches. Some of them are labeled "bathroom," "kitchen," "air conditioner," etc. Some of the labels might even be correct.
Wouldn't it be nice if you could control all of those switches from your phone? The latest generation of electrical panels offers that option and even more. These panels are "smart," and can adjust the power going to different circuits to optimize what you need, when you need it -- and reduce the energy going to things you don't need right.
Perhaps more importantly, they collect data on how much energy is being used by what in your home. Sometimes that data collection is at the circuit level, sometimes even more granular than that.
"You can actually understand, in bedroom number two, how much power is going to this TV, or how much is the coffee maker using in the kitchen," said Mathieu Buscaylet, connected devices business manager for residential and commercial business at Schneider Electric. Schneider, a well-known electrical component maker, is one of several companies getting into this market, and its Schneider Home product line opened for preorder late last year. Others include SPAN and Savant, which offer smart components for standard panels.
Compared to replacing an entire electrical panel, Savant allows you to pick and choose the circuits you want to be "smart." You just need to buy "modules" for those circuits. Consider a situation Nicole Madonna, vice president of product management for power solutions at Savant, presented to me at CES 2024: While most American homes have 200-amp electrical service, some have 100-amp service, meaning the grid and your panel can only provide half as much power at one time. If you add some power-hungry appliances, like an EV charger or a heat pump, it can quickly crowd out all your other electrical appliances.
Putting a smart module on some of those higher-usage circuits would allow you to control when those were used, Madonna said. For example, you could throttle or shut off your EV charger at times of the day when you were also running your air conditioner.
Savant also rolled out a new approach to its technology at CES 2024 that makes it even smarter. Savant calls it "scenes," and it allows you to customize settings for all your smart energy tech so that you can pick a "scene" and it will shut off or adjust circuits to meet what you specified in the scene. Think about it as a preset for your smart electrical panel, allowing you to switch to modes that use less electricity when you want to spend less on power.
These tools give you a clear view of where your energy is going. You can see how much your heating and cooling system is using, how much your EV is using and how much your coffee maker is using. That knowledge is power.
You know where you're wasting energy. Now what?
There's a difference between having a vague idea of how to make your home energy efficient and being able to actually see where your energy is being used. CNET's James Bricknell learned this when he played around with a thermal imaging camera -- areas in need of better insulation literally glowed.
The data you get from a smart panel and the process of thinking about your energy consumption will show you where you can find savings.
"Being able to make that sort of connection with your bill, that's going to help you understand, 'What is it I need to do to make my home a bit more efficient?'" Johnson said.
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Jon ReedSenior Editor
Jon Reed is an editor for CNET covering home energy, including solar panels and energy efficiency. Jon has spent more than a decade making a living by asking other people questions. He previously worked as an editor at NextAdvisor, focused on home loans and the housing market; as a statehouse reporter in Columbus, Ohio; and as a reporter in Birmingham, Alabama. When not asking people questions, he can usually be found half asleep trying to read a long history book while surrounded by cats.