New strategies are coming to help homeowners pay less for electricity, and electrical contractors can help them prepare. If you have installed a network infrastructure for your customers, they will be ready to take advantage of these strategies as they develop.

Smart grid
It’s important to know what “smart grid” means. According to the Department of Energy’s (DOE) publication, “The Smart Grid: An Introduction,” it “will be characterized by a two-way flow of electricity and information and will be capable of monitoring everything from power plants to customer preferences to individual appliances. It incorporates into the grid the benefits of distributed computing and communications to deliver real-time information and enable the near-instantaneous balance of supply and demand at the device level.”

The technology needed to implement these concepts exists and already is deployed in many localities. Some power companies offer dynamic rates, which include “critical peak pricing” and real-time pricing, according to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s report, “A National Assessment of Demand Response Potential.”

If residential users are able to respond in real time to the needs of power producers, they will have even more benefits than just reducing electric bills when demand is high. A substantial portion of everyone’s electric bill pays for the construction and maintenance of power company infrastructure. Reducing peak consumption will reduce the need for utilities to build new capacity. According to the DOE, the smart grid could “send 50 to 300 percent more electricity through existing energy corridors.” Add to this the fact that it would improve the nation’s ability to use alternative-energy sources, such as wind, solar and distributed (locally sited) generation, and it looks like a win-win. Costs go down for producers, consumers and the environment.

Smart meters
Advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) uses solid-state meters, rather than the old-fashioned analog power meters. These smart meters not only provide usage information to the power company, but they maintain real-time, two-way communication between producer and consumer. Once the utility installs it, the AMI system can tell the utility how much electricity each of its connected customers is using as often as every 15 minutes. This helps the producer analyze patterns of use in order to more intelligently allocate resources.

Since the communication goes both ways, the utility company also can send information to the customer about their usage at any time and can even directly display dollar values for consumption. Seeing actual costs can inspire customers to think about reducing the energy they use.

At this moment, technology for a complete energy-control system is almost available. Smart meters will be the middlemen between electricity producers and consumers. Once the utility establishes a smart grid connection, it will be able to send control signals to homes equipped with smart meters. The utility will be able to disconnect homes from the grid in a power emergency, so a blackout would be contained and wouldn’t go viral like the Northeast blackout in August 2003, which brought down 100 power plants and left 55 million people without electricity.

A less spectacular, but just as important, application will be the conjunction of real-time pricing with the ability to notify users of the current price. Residential real-time pricing is already available in Illinois and Alabama, and there are pilot programs elsewhere. Armed with information about variable rates, the consumer can put off using high-demand loads, such as dishwashers, microwave ovens, and clothes washers and dryers until a lower price period. Even more effective is using pricing signals during high-demand times to cause a home network to automatically lower thermostat settings in winter, raise them in summer, reduce the number of high-wattage electronic devices in use, cut back on lighting levels, and reduce hot water temperature—the possibilities really are unlimited.

Appliance manufacturers, such as GE and LG, are starting to produce smart refrigerators, stoves, dishwashers, and washer and dryer combinations with built-in connectivity and control.

Networking for the (near) future
As the demand for electricity increases and the systems for producing and transmitting it get pushed to the limit, something must be done and soon. The most sensible and cost-effective solutions will focus on communication and control between producers and users. Homes that have networks in place to respond and control their own systems will be way ahead.


BROWN is an electrical engineer, technical writer and editor. For many years, he designed high-power electronics systems for industry, research laboratories and government. Reach him at ebeditor@gmail.com or at www.writingengineer.com, an independent professional writing service.