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Consumer electronics and the grid

I could be wrong—that's theoretically possible—but I do think it's likely that if consumers ever have a cost-effective means to manage their home energy use, the interface is going to be a form of consumer electronics. 

That's at once a "big if," as well as laughable in its timidity. Of course consumers are going to control their home energy use. Many already do, either manually or by remote control. Increasing demand for energy of all kinds globally will lead to management for efficiency locally. The market will favor new construction that has anticipated this, retrofits will be hot and self-sufficiency will be the buzzword. A judicious prioritization of needs and wants for home loads will enable efficiency without compromising lifestyle. 

Solar panel prices will continue to drop. DC current will flow from them directly to the home's electronic, lighting and appliance loads. Energy storage will provide multi-day backup. And a big screen TV, a wall-mounted touchpad, a smart phone and/or a piece of clothing or jewelry will accommodate the energy management interface.

Oh, it'll happen. We're just not sure exactly when. (Acknowledging uncertainty is the required sleight-of-hand for a prognosticator.) 

So if you're sifting the tea leaves for clues, you're probably tracking developments each year at the Consumer Electronics Show's mega-blowout in Las Vegas, taking place this week.  

While I've stumped for the obvious—smart phone as life's remote control—others aren't so certain. And, in fact, multiple user interfaces seem likely, based on convenience to the user. (Might be interesting to compare the rate of stolen iPhones to the number of "remotes" misplaced under couch cushions. I digress.)

Admittedly, that's a mighty "windy" introduction to headlines from this year's CES, but here are a few roughly curated items I noticed in yesterday's headlines. ("Roughly curated" means "in no particular order" because I'm not forecasting anything here, just passing along a few ideas for readers' consideration.) The past two Januarys have featured similar fare in terms of smart grid-related announcements around gadgets, appliances and so forth, little of which has apparently been put to use. But, naturally, the hype comes first. 

Apart from the idolatry of gadgetry, the utility industry might want to know how smart grid is presented to consumers and, in turn, what consumer expectations are being built up. (If these devices run on electricity, then surely the electricity provider is just as clever, right?)

Apropos of that point, LG announced a line of smart appliances, controllable by, well, smart phone.

"Smart Control allows users to effectively manage their appliances with simple voice commands via smartphone and monitor LG's super-efficient smart suite from outside the home*. By simply scanning their smartphone with the NFC Tag-on symbol on LG's smart appliances, users can easily register and control their refrigerator, washing machine, robotic vacuum cleaner or range oven remotely." (*Wireless Internet connection required for Smart Appliance features and sold separately.)

(For hurdles to the smart appliance market, see our recent column, "Smart Home Appliances: Questions Remain.") 

Will all this stuff play nice together? Ah, that's where standards come in. The fact that the IEEE Standards Association will present at CES reflects that the premier standards-setting organization gets it—you go fishing where the fish are. The IEEE-SA is banking on the notion that some attendees will find it interesting that standards enable global interoperability, thus growing markets and enabling economies of scale that—Chinese labor practices aside—result in affordable products and interoperable systems. IEEE-SA will highlight its work in enabling health-device communications, home networking and electric vehicle charging. This is most important to the second audience at CES: the vendors themselves.    

An outfit called Alpha Networks Inc., from Taiwan, is touting the "digital home," largely from the entertainment and security angles, but if and when energy management is added, here's another data point for the utility-plus-partners model. 

It's probably healthy to remember that consumers may not care how things get done. The iPhone phenomenon establishes that ease-of-use, high functionality and a low price tag can conquer the world. 

All that said, I live in a suburb of Denver with a proliferation of passive solar panels for hot water heating that sprouted in the mid-1970s, right after the 1973 oil embargo. The panels are cracking, the struts are loosening. Spending money to manage energy use and costs, it would appear, has historically been driven by price spikes inspired by the disruption of energy supplies. With natural gas prices currently low, it's hard to foresee a new spike. But then, gas prices in 1973-74 were only tangentially related to the wave of passive solar panel installations in my neighborhood. The market moves in mysterious ways. 

I leave you with these thoughts.


Phil Carson's picture

Thank Phil for the Post!

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