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Musings of an Energy Nerd

Get Ready for Smart Appliances

Are homeowners willing to let utilities have remote control over their air conditioners, dishwashers, and refrigerators?

This smart refrigerator from LG includes a web-connected display above the ice dispenser.
Image Credit: Image #1: LG

Utility executives and some energy-efficiency experts have been dreaming for years of a smart electricity grid connected to smart appliances that can be remotely controlled. In many North American cities, however, the installation of smart meters has faced strong opposition from some homeowners. The resulting fallout has amounted to a public relations nightmare for electric utilities.

According to utility engineers, the smart grid will be able to accomplish many things. Married with smart appliances, the smart grid will eventually:

  • Allow the utility to read your meter without visiting your house.
  • Allow the company to create tiered pricing systems with rates that vary depending on the time of day.
  • Provide the utility with real-time access to energy use data for each customer — data that can be broken down by appliance.
  • Provide homeowners with real-time energy use data.
  • Allow customers to remotely control their own appliances.
  • Allow the utilities to remotely control customers’ appliances during periods of heavy electrical demand as part of a “demand response” strategy.

GE, Samsung, and LG are now manufacturing smart appliances that can interact with a smart grid and can be controlled from a remote location.

Demand response

When utility executives first hatched the idea of smart appliances, their chief motivation was a desire to remotely control appliances as a “demand response” strategy. “Demand response” is utility jargon; it refers to measures designed to lower electricity demand during peak hours. (When peak load is high, some electric utilities struggle to meet the electricity demand of their customers.)

I first became aware of utility executives’ smart grid vision in early 2008. My article on the topic, “DOE Studies Homeowners’ Tolerance Of Utility-Controlled Appliances,” appeared in the February 2008 issue of Energy Design Update. I wrote, “In a study conducted by researchers from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, 50…

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  1. Airithol | | #1

    Nice article
    Interesting read. Kind of ironic that today's other GBA article predicts the end of these evil utility companies.

    We currently have a time of use rate structure where I live. It breaks down like this;

    11.2 c/kwh from 7am - 11am (Mid Peak)
    13.5 c/kwh from 11am - 5pm (On Peak)
    11.2 c/kwh from 5pm - 7pm (Mid Peak)
    7.5 c/kwh from 7pm - 7am (Off Peak)

    Sometimes we can wait to do laundry at 7pm, or weekends, other times we cannot. For business, or people who work at home, I imagine the "savings" are not as great as the utilities suggested they would be.

    Like the article suggests, it was presented to us as a money saving feature.

    I am skeptical that remote control of appliances will save (additional?) money for a consumer. TOU incentives are based on when you turn on your dishwasher, not from where. Yes, you might be leaving the house at 6:30pm and need to turn it on. Isn't that what delayed timers are for?

    Call me old fashion I guess, but the idea of starting up my dryer from the highway doesn't excite me. Nevermind the implications of accidentally starting your stove when you're not home.


  2. Jon_R | | #2

    I agree, the potential privacy invasion is huge, bigger than people realize. And we have no way to verify how detailed the reported data is and what happens to it.

    Trading services for data (like Google) is one thing, but the local power company is a monopoly (other than the often not so practical solar + batteries).

    I'm less concerned about the utility turning things on/off.

  3. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #3

    Response to Jason Hyde and Jon R.
    Jason and Jon,
    Thanks to both of you for your comments.

    So, we have two votes so far -- both in favor of dumb appliances.

  4. Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #4

    Time of use vs. demand charges vs. real time cost of power
    In the age of widely distributed small scale generation and storage people may be able to opt when they deliver power to the grid as well as when they pull power from the grid. Demand response while valuable for maintaining grid stability in 2014 is going to look like pretty weak tea by 2024. These grids, they are a-changin', and faster than most regulators or utilities can keep up with.

    The way residential retail power is bought & sold will change significantly in most areas in the coming decade. Redefining the rate structures in such a way that protects all stake holders (including the non-power generating customers) is no simple task, but its do-able. Some of the issues and ways of addressing rate restructuring can be found in this primer on the subject:

    Demand charges (paying for the amount of infrastructure required to support the peak loads at a site) are not currently assessed on residential customers- a large home with a 50,000 watt air conditioner pays the same blocky per-kwh rate as homes whose peak draw is 5000 watts in most places, but the grid resources required for supporting the larger load are considerably higher. In commercial buildings the demand charges are often the majority of the bill, and even at existing grid-storage pricing it's cost effective in many areas to install smart-batteries on their side of the grid to limit the peak demands. This not only cuts the bill down to size, it stablizes the local grid in ways that mere demand response would never touch.

    Where & when grid storage on the residential customer's side of he meter (with or without local PV) this can be a game-changer, since the customer would be able to charge up during off-peak hours for site use during peak hours (or even re-transmission onto the grid, if allowed by regulators), as well as limit demand charges. Currently local grid storage isn't allowed in most places, but just this year it became law in California (but only for PV owners), after the utilities fought it tooth & nail, losing most of the battle. The utilities were allowed to limit the peak power that could be put onto the grid from the batteries to some fraction or multiple of the peak PV output for those sites (reasonable, since you don't want them to DE-stabilize the local grid.)

    Aggregating demand response systems and bidding it into regional capacity markets (to be actively PAID for the amount of demand response in a competitive fashion) is being discussed in some places, including the ongoing New York state regulation restructuring that began earlier this year. If demand market aggregation ever dribbles down to the residential customer level that could become a serious driver of the smart-appliance biz. The notion of financially treating aggregated demand response in the same way as a peak power generator was shot down by courts in earlier this year but the rationale for rejecting it being , "It doesn't actually generate electricity" is a bit short-sighted, given that the size and ramp-rates of distributed demand response is far superior for relieving peak loads and congestion issues (and at a far lower capital cost) than peaking power generators.

    If the goal is a more reliable electric grid at a lower cost to the ratepayers, compensating low capacity factor peak generators more than demand-response simply makes no sense at all.

  5. kevin_in_denver | | #5

    After 35 years, I've Abandoned All Hope for the Smart Grid
    The Ontario rate structure shows why smart appliances just aren't worth the hassle. If you are electrically heating your home or your hot water, however, you can save a lot of money with off peak energy storage.

    Another huge benefit would be if the utility will pay you peak rate retail for your rooftop PV generation.

    That's why I've followed off-peak energy issues since doing my graduate research on the topic. I was optimistic for 31 of those years.

    The People's Republic of Boulder, CO, at Xcel Energy's suggestion, tried the smart grid, and it was an utter failure due to a poor implementation. So bad, in fact, that Boulder is now firing Xcel and starting their own municipal utility. Boulderites believe they can combine renewables and a smart grid better than a big, stupid, regulated monopoly, and they're right.

    Martin's high degree of skepticism is well placed. Not because the benefits of off-peak energy storage are nebulous, but because the current utility structure of regulated monopoly is a lousy place for innovation.

    Martin says "Some homeowners may even be tempted to go off-grid". Unless the utility market sees deregulation soon, all the best innovation in residential electricity will be in that direction. Then, individually, we can fire our electric companies, and not have to pass a law like Boulder had to.

  6. Expert Member

    I wish most of my existing appliances were even dumber. All the newer ones feature delicate and expensive to replace electronic controls which offer a range of largely useless options.
    All this interfacing comes at the cost of resiliency. All these active systems are making the house increasingly dependant on outside inputs and specialized maintenance.
    There are also definitely social implications to all this. It pre-supposes a certain level of wealth to maintain and replace all these new components. Who gets left behind?

  7. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #7

    Response to Malcolm Taylor
    I agree with you. When I bought a washing machine a few years ago, I went to a lot of trouble to find a new Maytag with the old mechanical-style twist control rather than an electronic control. It was hard to find. I worried at the time that I was buying the last such appliance in America.

  8. mackstann | | #8

    Smart appliances & meters are good for nerds
    I have the GeoSpring heat pump water heater and after months of occasional googling, I finally figured out how to interface with the ethernet port on it. GE is now producing this little module that plugs into it that lets you easily talk to the water heater with a bit of code.

    You can use the SDK (software development kit) they provide to talk to a bunch of other GE appliances as well. You can control them, query their status/settings, and get energy usage data. It's pretty awesome.

    So far I've made a timer application I can use on my smartphone to temporarily put the water heater in "boost" mode (140F/resistance heating) for a short period of time, after which it will default back to more energy-saving settings (120F/heat pump only). I may make an energy use monitoring app for it too.

    Separately, I've made a whole-home energy monitoring app that detects the one-per-Wh blinks of the infrared LED on my electric meter. There are pre-made products that do this but they're kind of expensive and I'm a programmer so I like doing it my own way.

    It's a good time to be a computer+energy nerd.

  9. user-757117 | | #9

    I also agree with you - I like being able to at least have a shot at fixing something myself...
    One element on our electric range wasn't working a while back and so I thought I should be able to solve that myself.
    But no, after some diagnostic frustration I had to hire an appliance repair guy to come in and it turned out the problem was a fault in the range's circuit board.
    $150 to replace the circuit board because a 5$ relay that got fried during a brown out.

    My new house has surge protection on the panel.

  10. Expert Member
    MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #10

    I've got an old Bosch wall oven I bought on Craigslist sitting in my shed waiting for the long put off renovation of my kitchen. I see from reviews that using the self-cleaning feature on more recent ovens can fry the electronic controls. The solution suggested to me at the appliance dealer was to buy their extended warranty!
    So many of these new technologies seem like solutions looking for a problem. And interestingly, from a historical persecutive, the information revolution, unlike all the technological ones before it, has produced no measurable gains in productivity.

  11. user-3549882 | | #11

    Demand Response, Smart Grid, and a Different Look
    Leave it to an off-grid guy to post a pithy article on stuff like grids, privacy, and Utility policies. (Deep bows of homage).

    Now, as regards Smart Grid: I'd vote YES on remote meter reading and having the OPTION for time of day or real time pricing. I'd vote NO on the rest (data by appliance, home owner data, remote control, Utility control of appliances). My impression of the smart grid crowd is they seem more motivated by the "Gee Whiz" factor than by hard economics and tangible benefits to homeowners. I'm OK with that; to each his/her own.

    DEMAND RESPONSE: peak utility demand is usually not a problem for individual homeowners but it is some times a problem for us collectively who are still on the grid. My biggest issue with DR is the Utility benefits by reducing peak usage but the usage doesn't decline. It just gets DEFERRED to a later time. The Utility loses no revenue but the homeowner feels the inconvenience. A real time pricing scheme automatically provides an incentive for customers to reduce usage during peaks.

    My preferred approach to DR is to look at the source of the peak to begin with. If the need is eliminated, the kwhs decline, the Utility peak declines, and the customer saves $. Is the Utility happy? Not really. They lose revenue but then they use this to justify a rate increase. Now they're happy again.

    PRIVACY: There's already too much intrusion. The marketers want/use the data for their own purposes and claim it's to our benefit. I'd prefer to be the one deciding what's to my benefit. Google may not be the worst offender but they could be the most visible.

    WHAT WE HAVE DONE: a) Reduced our kwh usage generally. b) Automatically now no longer use a/c kwh during summer peak periods. In so doing, control of our a/c is a non issue. c) Automatically shift load for what a/c we still use to non-peak periods. d) To do all of this, one needs a technical edge. Our edge is to reduce infrared heating from sunlight It's not an app. ALSO, e) We now often use live electricity pricing data as an input to deciding when to use an appliance. f) Weather permitting, we dry our laundry on clothes lines. g) We volunteered for a real time pricing program. It has a built-in capacity charge feature. h) Oh, yes, we still have our Matyag washer & dryer choosing repair vs. buy new.

    NEW ISSUES: We are now seeing peak demand periods and pricing during winter. We need technically correct and economically justified options to deal with this. We need an edge. Ex: alternate sourcing, Passive House measures, ..... any ideas? Otherwise, it could take us back to standard rates.

    WHAT I'D LIKE TO SEE: (no order). 1) The Utility should continue to be there to support us and our lives and not vice versa. 2) I prefer technically and economically viable options to eliminate the source of peak usage, not just adapt to it or defer the usage to later. 3) Smart appliances that are smart because they use less energy to do their job and not because they spy on me and report my habits to marketers or others. 4) If deep cycle batteries are needed for surging/leveling, they should be paid for by those that own and control them.

    Question (rhetorical): If the Utility wants to control my appliances, would they be OK if I control their generators and pricing policies? In New Hampshire they have an answer for this one.

  12. jonathanforddalton | | #12

    In Ontario we've been living
    In Ontario we've been living with smart meters for a few years and everyone's bills went up. Recently I signed up for my utility's Peaksaver program, which offers a free touch screen thermostat and energy monitor in exchange for handing over the keys to your air conditioner and/or electric heat.

    I think it's great. I read the terms and conditions carefully and all I'm really giving up is 12 minutes of A/C once every 20 - once in a while - and getting paid for it.

    The energy monitor, which in this case depends on the smart meter, gives a real sense of how much we're using and what devices cost to run. We're saving a ton of money with no hit to comfort and convenience, just by paying attention. As engineers love to say, what isn't measured won't improve. My first bill after signing up was my lowest ever - and this was for July and August.

    It seems like such a win-win. Homeowners save money and utilities avoid the need to add new capacity. The problem now is utilities are complaining that their revenues are going down because of conservation efforts. They are lobbying the government to make a portion of the electrical bill flat rate.

  13. user-1135248 | | #13

    The most important issues here are 1> full disclosure, and 2> opt-out.

    There are plenty of benefits to what "smart" infrastructure *can* do,
    but consumers need to be able to learn exactly how it works, what
    information flows in which direction and along what path and who
    has access to it, and how they can configure an acceptable profile
    for their own needs and/or comfort level. In all these battles
    both sides seem to be centering on minor issues when one considers
    the overall picture.

    My local muni utility has time-of-use billing, and I went for it but
    only after learning how it works. They've been installing the Itron
    "Centron" meters with the digital display and Automatic Meter Read
    (AMR) capability that simply blats out the current reading(s) every
    few minutes which get picked up by local pole-top repeaters and then
    relayed on to the power company's office. That's all there is to it.
    Even with the slightly fancier TOU model they had to swap in to give
    me time-of-use, they aren't telling my water heater to shut off right
    after I've started a shower. But read on...

    The TOU meters have a real-time date/time clock and a programmed-in
    calendar of weekends and holidays out for some ridiculous amount of
    future time, because it's not a lot of data and they can easily store
    it. They report an "A" read and a "B" read instead of a single number.
    The peak "A" time blocks are weekdays between noon and 7pm regardless
    of season, which really makes less sense in winter and I asked them how
    it gains them anything. Evidently the rate structures from *their*
    electricity suppliers follow similar time schedules and they're simply
    passing those incentives on to the customers if it helps everyone get
    their business-day afternoon loads reduced. Even in winter. Maybe
    that'll start to change as more people roll out heat pumps.

    Itron and the other meter makers do have models that offer some
    types of bidirectional control, but they require a much more complex
    infrastructure and utilities aren't likely to spec wide deployment
    of such expensive options without justifiable need. Maybe urban areas
    with a lot of fraud or nonpayment would want the meters that can be
    told to shut off their loads remotely. But problems of that sort
    are generally easier to solve in most service areas with letters
    and phone calls and if it comes down to it, a simple truck roll.

    They did offer another type of billing based on electric water heater
    timing, in which they *could* control when it goes on or off. It's
    done through a separate module upstream of the DHW and requires an
    outbound internet connection through whatever hookup the house has.
    At that point a customer would clearly have to opt in to such an
    arrangement and would know what they're getting into, balancing
    perceived "privacy" of their DHW needs versus saving a few bucks.

    Since the TOU billing *in combination with* my modified usage
    patterns *based on* understanding how it works was already reducing
    my bills, I listened to their offer of the DHW control option and then
    simply bought an Intermatic water-heater timer that's programmable
    for a 7-day cycle in two hour blocks. That's plenty of granularity
    to program the whole week's worth of demand pattern in, to simply
    turn off over peak times, and no internet traffic needed.

    Same with the heat pump. My fancy controller contains a single
    schedule event: turn OFF at 11:55 AM on weekdays. If I'm home at
    7pm I can turn it back on. That works for both seasons, because
    in winter "off" means go to a setback temp and if I don't come
    home that's what the house will cool down to. In summer I've
    found that there's no point in a cooling "setback" or another
    time event to turn on, because the house just doesn't heat up
    appreciably and without me in it, there's no need to ventilate
    or dehumidify. Thus, there is absolutely no need for my thermostat
    to talk to the internet or "learn" my habits. I teach it what to do,
    not the other way around, and that's my understanding-based means
    of opting out of "scary" stuff like the Nest.

    If I had one of those LG fridges or whatever the first thing I'd
    be asking for is the API manual for its network protocol, and expect
    no resistance to obtaining that. It's not like they have to keep
    anything secret, it's not encrypted cable-TV or whatever. If the
    answer is "sorry, proprietary", the device doesn't get allowed to
    talk to anything outside its own perimeter. This reflects the main
    reason I could never buy a Tesla in its current implementation --
    connectivity is mandatory and I don't get to control what goes
    over it. That's all I ask for.

    I think utilities would far more appreciate hearing "okay, tell me
    exactly how it works" questions from consumers rather than a flat
    and mostly groundless "I don't want that". But they need to do their
    part and provide full and honest answers to those questions, which
    is the best way to reassure people about what they're getting. It's
    not the fact that data is available that's scary, it's the deliberate
    hiding of how it's collected/secured and how it's used that is.

    My local muni has fun open-house events once in a while, and one of
    the guys from the metering department spent quite a while showing
    me a bunch of what he can display on his data-collection station.
    Meter serial numbers and readings, that's it. And whether it's got
    power at all, useful for automatically knowing about outages. They
    built some completely isolated and dedicated infrastructure for
    this, i.e. are smart enough to not use those same computers for
    surfing sketchy russian porn sites or for that matter talking to
    the internet at all.


  14. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #14

    Response to Hobbit
    I admire your approach. For utility customers who have your sophistication and plenty of time for research, your advice applies.

    Most homeowners might not be capable of interpreting a utility representative's information, to know whether the collected data is protected enough to allay their worries.

    Even the data you describe -- time of use billing that is updated every few minutes -- raises privacy issues, since it's enough information to determine when people wake up, when people go to sleep, when people come home from work, and (in some cases) when most family members take their showers.

  15. Jon_R | | #15

    insights from power usage
    My understanding is that there has been good success with looking at instantaneous power usage and power factor vs time and coming up with things like "a plasma TV was just turned on". And who can say if a smart meter is collecting and reporting such details (even if reports are only sent daily).

    I'd like the option of "you can report my kwh once per month and nothing else".

  16. Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #16

    I'd like the option...
    ...of local storage batteries and being able to charge it up based on the real-time price, and manage all of the loads off the battery side rather than worrying about load-monitoring & snooping by the utility.

    Grid storage currently costs north of $500/kwh., but may be under $200/kwh in 5 years (depending on how Tesla's giga-factory turns out, among the other contenders.)

    Even a 5-10kwh power storage system can manage the daily power use at a house fairly well, even if it means charging multiple times/day. With real-time pricing information constantly updated by the utility the owner can program it to lock out during expensive periods, and always top off during low-price periods. Such systems exist today, targeted at commercial installations for avoiding demand-charges- there are no technical hurdles, only regulatory and cost challenges. Smart car-chargers are just a variation on that theme.

    The per-kwh cost of grid storage systems is still substantial at current storage prices, since batteries do not have infinite re-charge cycles. But when it hits $100/kwh it will be VERY interesting in places with high cost electricity and only moderate delivery charges.

  17. griffer | | #17

    Nest thermostats
    Interesting interview with Tony Fadell the CEO of Nest. Describes what his device has accomplished in terms of energy savings, etc. Start at about 12:30 in if you want to skip the back history.

  18. Expert Member
    MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #18

    You don't need to be a conspiracy theorist to understand why Google bought Nest. Up until now they only had access to the personal information they could aggregate from your online activities. Now they can see what you are up to anywhere in your home. A perfect example of why privacy concerns are very real.

  19. watercop | | #19

    @ John Dalton
    "all I'm really giving up is 12 minutes of A/C once every 20 - once in a while"

    That means "once in awhile" you are giving up 60% of your cooling capacity (maybe also heating capacity in the case of heat pumps). That could be a serious bummer if your heat pump / AC is properly sized.

    If such a pricing arrangement became widespread it would in effect create a perverse incentive to oversize...if I have a 2-3 ton load I could meet it with a 4-5 ton heat pump / AC that runs only 40% of the time...UGH! it would be horribly inefficient and provide piss-poor dehumidification.

  20. rickw4s | | #20

    the role of the electrical utility...
    One thing not mentioned in article (nor did I see it in comments) is the future role of a utility company.

    Used to be that the utility was the only producer and homes/business were the consumers.

    With the increasing popularity of PV, quite possibly some neighborhoods will become net producers of electricity at various times during the day.
    If you add in wind, these non-dispatchable power sources will be changing the utilities' role from producer to power regulators and conditioners: having to respond to momentary cloud-cover or wind lulls to ensure clean power delivery.

    In absence of cost-effective electricity storage, demand response could be one tool in their arsenal.
    (But as the article mentioned: it's a tough sell to the consumer.)

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