Home Sweet (Power-Hogging) Home?

So much for the old adage, “A man’s home is his castle.”

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By Brian Fuller

Numbers, history and technology are on a collision course inside your home.

Consider the numbers:

  • The big picture points to an even bigger opportunity for smart system design that can reduce power in and out of the chip.

  • Since 1982, growth in peak demand for electricity has exceeded transmission growth by almost 25% every year. Yet spending on research and development – the first step toward innovation and renewal – lags.

  • If every American household replaced one incandescent bulb with a compact fluorescent bulb, the conservation savings could light 3 million homes and save more than $600 million annually.

  • Upwards of half of an average home’s electric bill pays for the “infrastructure mortgage” on the grid.

Now some history: The electrical grid is a century old; power-plant construction has slowed to a trickle. Railroads, airlines and roads have been upgraded more regularly in that same century.

Technology, of course, has exploded in the past four decades thanks to innovations in semiconductors and software, yet that technology has hardly made a dent in our grid and the homes that feed off it. Until now.

Call it maturity or the imperative of expectations (or call it nearly $5 a gallon gas last summer), but the nation’s grid system and its homes are primed for a makeover of epic proportions.

“People have come to expect convenience. People expect to be able to control things wherever and whenever,” says Jeff Lund, vice president of business development for the Networked Energy Services (NES) at Echelon, a longtime provider of electronics solutions for home and building automation. “They expect to have that instant access and connectivity. Once devices are smart, there’s no reason they can’t better manage energy usage.”

Startups have blossomed in recent years to help consumers and utilities realize the dream of an energy efficient home and grid. It raises the question of whether building and deploying millions of devices and systems to manage our energy transmission and consumption runs counter to the goal of energy conservation. More devices, after all, consumer more power.

“By adding intelligence into the grid and the home, there’s actually energy savings. There are savings on the grand scale,” says Rich Fair, marketing manager for NEC Electronics America’s MCU.

It was one thing when the EnergyStar program came onto the scene a decade ago, driven by concerns about washers and dryers, microprocessor and display power (among other things) within home computers. But a world driven by EnergyStar metrics is “meaningless,” according to Lund.

“It’s based on a mythical kilowatt-hour charge. If everyone’s on a flat rate then everything’s even, but if you’re varying rates in time, it’s going to be different,” he says. “There’s almost another measure that needs to be developed: energy IQ for instance.”

This notion of “energy IQ” is what scores of companies are after: Echelon, Tendril, GreenBox, Proliphix, EnergyHub, Itron, and even Google are among many companies trying to give consumers more visibility into their appliance usage and tie utilities more intimately to their customers.

Lund and Echelon, a pioneer of sorts in the arena, see momentum despite the fact that most utilities aren’t motivated to drive energy efficiency; they’re motivated (and regulated) to generate power.

“If the grid is smarter and devices are smarter, you have the opportunity to optimize energy consumption,” Lund says.

Part of the momentum is based on changing ways in which the industry views technology today—much more in line with the Internet model as opposed to a factory-manufacturing model. The old command-and-control model begat innovations that were point solutions: a more efficient washer that was powered by a new microprocessor running a new algorithm. That resulted in device and feature creep, and, as new appliances came on the market, energy creep as well. It talked to no other device and gave consumers no additional insight.

But today’s leading thinkers compare the promise of the smart grid to the Internet. Bob Metcalfe, who invented Ethernet, has a powerful, detailed argument for using the model and lessons of the Internet to create the “Enernet” in the coming years.

Metcalfe equates energy and power with information and bandwidth; ergs and joules with bits and bytes; power equals joules per second, whereas in Internet parlance, bandwidth equals bits per second. Metcalfe envisions an “Enernet” built on layering principles similar to the Internet, a world in which this network helps optimize distributed (rather than centralized) sources of energy generation.

He also envisions a network that moves energy around asynchronously, just as the Internet’s asynchronous technology replaced the less efficient synchronous topology of the old telephone infrastructure.

At the device level, Echelon has partnered with FPGA vendor Altera Corp. to ensure that Altera’s NIOS FPGAs work with Echelon’s powerline smart transceivers. The transceivers enable communications between any number of new systems built on a baseline and programmable technology platform (FPGAs); that vision sees a data-driven model as enabling an intelligent home network, decreasing energy use at peak times.

NEC is working within industry-specified standards (ZigBee, for instance, has emerged as almost the de facto standard for appliance communications in the home) to bring lower-power microcontrollers and LED lighting to bear on the energy problem, all potentially talking to each other.

Then there’s the marriage of software and hardware and that effect on the grid. Take air conditioners, says Bobby Wong, technical marketing manager at NEC. Not only can more sophisticated microcontrollers manage the power surge that comes with a motor kicking on, but new algorithms are being used to manage the operation of the motor better so that it’s not always running at full speed if it doesn’t have to.

“When you look at the system, driving the motor consumes the most energy,” Wong says. “If you can use a more efficient algorithm to run the motor with the MCU, then you’re saving energy.”

The pieces of the energy efficiency puzzle lie on the table, and they’re slowly being assembled. For the first time in decades, the promise of technology doesn’t rest on a product that’s a year or two out (the way robust applications in computing and communications had to wait for the underlying technology of logic and memory to mature). The underlying technology exists to enable smart energy homes and the smart grid.

The challenge today is in selling the return on investment to utilities that have changed little in a century, regulators who are focused on the rate base and to consumers who don’t necessarily want to pay a lot today for energy savings tomorrow.

Echelon’s Lund believes the answer is perspective.

“A lot of it has to do with people understanding the power of the network. It’s not the way people built control systems where the rat’s nest of wires became a rat’s nest of software. It has to be seen as a data-driven architecture. That makes the development process extraordinarily easier, it makes products cheaper and more functional for the end user. There is an ‘aha’ moment when it happens.”