In some ways it's long overdue. The energy-management capability that home automation gurus have been promising for years is now taking shape under the umbrella of "smart grid" technology. Among the companies that have joined the fray are Control4 Corp., a Salt Lake City-based whole-house automation company, and GridPoint, an Arlington, Va., developer of utility software. The two teamed up earlier this year, in fact, to provide integration between smart home energy-management devices and utilities' smart grid systems.
They're not alone. Even Google has developed a free Web service called PowerMeter that consumers can use to track energy use in their house or business as it's consumed. The growing ecosystem of utilities, software companies, and device makers will allow consumers to have detailed access to their home energy use and to make smarter energy decisions.
For Control4, whose home automation system already allows for time-based control of lighting scenes and heating and cooling, tying in communication with the utility company is a natural extension. Control4's Home Energy Manager line is one of the first solutions based on a home area network (HAN) and enables homeowners to control lighting, sprinklers, thermostats, electronic shutoff valves, and other devices via a TV or other in-home display.
"We've always done lighting and HVAC control," says Paul Nagel, Control4's vice president of strategic development. "Now we're connecting ourselves to the smart meter on the side of the house." Smart meters are the outgrowth of a nationwide effort to better manage—and curb—energy use during peak load times. By better managing electrical loads, utility companies won't have to build new peak generators to handle growing electricity demand, and they've begun an aggressive effort to take control of homeowner's utility usage during periods of high demand.
GridPoint's load-management software is a virtual console for the utility to peek into customer profiles to monitor loads. Rolling blackouts in the Northeast and California in the early 1990s sparked a federal mandate to have local utilities and public utility commissions study the issue. According to Nagel, "The average home continues to use more and more electricity every year. Rather than have a huge infrastructure built, the industry is investing in new technologies in the home to load-shed devices when the peak occurs."
The Federal Smart Grid Task Force was established under Title XIII of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 to coordinate smart grid activities across the federal government. The U.S. Department of Energy's overall smart grid vision for the year 2030 involves reducing carbon emissions via modernizing the electric grid with advanced digital communications and computing technologies.
A number of utilities in critical parts of the country have begun installing smart meters, including San Diego Gas & Electric, which began its smart meter deployment this past March.
A total of 2.3 million smart meters are expected to be in use by the end of 2011.Control4 has been invited to participate in a number of these deployments around the country. "The utility companies are developing the meter—the smart grid side of it—and we provide devices that constitute a HAN," says Glen Mella, president and COO of Control4.
Energy management wasn't the genesis of Control4, which was founded in 2003, but it fits nicely with the company's home-control offerings, especially given the strength of the green movement. Energy management "is a very important area that will drive significant adoption of home automation via the HAN concept and energy-saving initiatives," Mella says. "Virtually every major utility—or the progressive ones—has it on the drawing board."
Utilities are assuming the cost of the infrastructure upgrade. Consumers can earn a small tax benefit by opting into a voluntary program that allows the utility to control their usage. A typical insert in a utility bill might offer consumers a $20 tax reduction in exchange for allowing the utility company to install a device next to the meter that relinquishes control of the thermostat and air conditioners during peak energy times.
For some customers, that trade-off is too high. The hottest day of the year is the last day you want to relinquish control of your AC, Mella notes. That's where Control4's energy-management solution comes in. To Control4, utility-centric smart grid control is "yesterday's technology." A much more elegant solution is for a homeowner to have choice," he adds.