How communication systems will help save energy

Today, everything from thermostats to Crock-Pots® to light bulbs can be ­controlled with a smartphone app. Looking to the future, utilities across the country are ­working on systems that will communicate with smart electronics and appliances to ­automatically tell the ­electric utility how energy consumption can be reduced.

Adding or replacing insulation, using efficient light bulbs and ­sealing air leaks around windows are common energy efficiency tips offered by most electric utilities – and they do save energy. But many times, these traditional energy-saving tips do not take advantage of a growing trend in our lives: electronics and appliances that ­communicate to save energy.

Everything from thermostats to Crock-Pots® to light bulbs can be controlled with a smartphone app. Manufacturers are ­designing these devices with the ­ability to control them from anywhere with internet access or a cell signal. But what if all of these devices could be tied together to produce a ­communication system that helps you save on your monthly electric bill? What if it was easy? What if it actually worked? In conjunction with the nation’s national laboratories, utilities across the country are working on these communication systems.

In one scenario, the homeowner would instruct the home to maximize energy savings or maximize ­comfort. This would be communicated to the electric utility as they plan to meet peak energy demand. Peak energy demand refers to the time of the day when the most energy is ­consumed and when the cost of electricity is most expensive.

By using existing communication channels, the home will be able to automatically tell the electric utility how much it is able to reduce energy consumption. The ­appliances inside the home will determine how to do this without the homeowner being inconvenienced or being uncomfortable. Appliances will learn its owner’s behavior and living patterns. Thermostats such as the Nest or Ecobee do that now by learning the routines of the people living in the home and adjusting the thermostat to save energy.

During a peak period, for example, the thermostat could raise the home’s temperature a few degrees in the summer. However, if someone happens to be home, the system will instead look for savings by slightly dimming the lights, delaying the defrost cycle on the refrigerator or slowing the pool pump. The system is designed to help the consumer and the co-op save energy and money. At the same time, this process will be invisible to the homeowner.

It will take years for communication systems like this to show up on store shelves. However, the ­communication systems needed are already in place. Much of this will depend on the internet, but some parts may rely on the communication infrastructure that your local electric co-op is currently building and maintaining.

Today’s communication system is used to talking to a vast network of sensors and monitoring equipment that alerts the co-op to downed power lines, malfunctioning equipment and other problems that can occur. The speed and sophistication of those sensors allow the co-op to ­correct the problem before a large number of members experience an outage.

The modern electric utility is complicated and relies on a variety of systems to improve reliability. Tomorrow’s systems will utilize greater communications to create ­additional value for both the consumer and the electric co-op.

Brian Sloboda is a program manager specializing in energy efficiency for the Business Technology Strategies (BTS), a service of the Arlington, Va.-based National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.