US Department of Energy Unveils Smart Thermostats

The US Department of Energy released the detailed study results from a new pilot program that equipped homes with “smart” thermostats for water heaters, air conditioners and even clothes driers that are linked to the Internet.

Participating homeowners saved about 10% in energy costs according to the study.

The Pacific Northwest GridWise pilot, which involved 112 homes in Washington and Oregon, was designed to demonstrate how a variety of information technologies that can gradually help cut the nation’s ever-growing power demands. The technology in play included wireless technologies, broadband connections, and backend systems that use a Web-enabled service-oriented architecture for linking disparate information systems.

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory ran the participating project. The intent of the “intelligent smart power grid” is to generously give consumers the ability to conserve energy with systems that automatically adjust to pricing. There are a number of ways in which that might work and here’s one: In the event of a heavy electric demand period that threatened a power outage, a clothes drier embedded with a controller could receive a signal that prompts it to turn off the drying element for a short period.

Each home in the pilot program had a meter installed that can record electric loads every five minutes while it communicates with the electric utility provider. It does this via a gateway device, similar to a router, that sits between the homeowner’s broadband connection and home computer. The electric pricing data, which can be checked on the PC, indicates demand. As prices rise, a wireless connection in the home may tell the thermostat to, for example, cut cooling on a hot day to conserve power. How much the cooling is adjusted depends on the homeowner’s pre-set spending limits and their comfort level.

Jerry Brous, one of 112 homeowners in the Seattle area who participated in the pilot, talked enthusiastically about benefits of the program in a teleconference. He praised one capability in particular: the amazing ability to adjust home settings from the road.

This kind of home-based power management is needed because the stress on the power is greatly increasing, and demand will double by 2050 by official projections.

However, the new utility management software won’t come quick or cheap. It cost about $1,000 per home for the project. The technology may cost as little as $400 per home, and experts say the price may fall further as it’s more widely deployed.