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GE appliances to connect to smart grid via Tendril

Smart-grid start-up Tendril Networks and GE will test a system in which home appliances share data with utilities to cut electricity consumption.

Imagine a refrigerator smart enough to cut your electricity bills.

Smart-grid start-up Tendril and General Electric later this year will test a smart-grid system that will allow GE's networked home appliances to take advantage of cheaper electricity rates, the companies announced Wednesday.

The joint development deal calls for GE to speak to Tendril's smart-grid software in a range of GE appliances--dishwashers, washing machines, refrigerators, and water heaters--over Zigbee wireless networks.

From GE's labs: a fridge that talks to smart meters to save energy. Martin LaMonica/CNET

The integration will allow consumers to control their appliances from different points, such a Web browser, iPhone, or in-home display.

GE's support for Tendril's software for utilities will also allow consumers to take advantage of efficiency incentives offered by utilities, explained Adrian Tuck, the CEO of Tendril. The companies plan to test the system in the fourth quarter this year to measure the amount of energy savings possible, he said.

Tuck projected that reductions on the order of 30 percent for an individual appliance are possible if a utility offers demand-response programs to cut energy use during peak times. For a consumer, that would mean that a clothes drier will turn off the gas heat for a few minutes. In exchange, a consumer can get some sort of discount.

"People ask me all the time whether this is disruptive technology and I say that for most people it shouldn't be," Tuck said. "The vast majority of people just want to consume less electricity and they don't want to do it in ways that disrupt their lives."

To make this type of demand-response application possible, Tendril's software needs to communicate information on changing electricity prices from the utilities to GE's appliances through a smart meter or broadband connection. Based on that information, a refrigerator, for example, can decide to make ice at off-peak times.

Beyond the technical barriers, there need to be regulations that give incentives for utilities to promote efficiency and offer variable time-of-day pricing, Tuck added. "A lot of utilities don't like the idea of having customers consume less of what they sell," he said.

Also, how much consumers are willing to pay for in-home energy displays and grid-connected appliances in exchange for energy savings is still unclear. Tuck thinks consumers should not have to pay more than $100 to start out and not have ongoing fees.