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4 Steps to Residential Energy Management

From most news sources this week we hear progress, or lack thereof, of our government’s work on a comprehensive health plan. The most credible voices of opposition hammer on the notion that loss of choice and control will reduce the ability for consumers to reduce the costs of their care. Apply that same thinking to energy consumption. Today I have the choice, on a balmy Texas-in-July afternoon, to reduce my energy consumption by changing the thermostat. But aside from choosing to be uncomfortable, do I know how to improve my energy efficiency? As green technology proponents frequently remind us, if we don’t know what our home systems cost to run, we certainly are not equipped to fine tune them to more efficiently fit our lifestyles.

The four elements required to put the consumer in charge of his or her energy costs are:
1. Sufficient motivation for the consumer to make changes in current consumption behavior (this is implied).
2. An understanding of the energy used by each home system, measured in kilowatt hours and dollars.
3. The ability to program and control at least the major home systems, using common and easy to understand intelligent user interfaces.
4. A feedback loop which confirms which systems are responding to which programs and to what extent they are impacting consumption of kilowatts and dollars.

It is interesting to watch the development of these four elements. Parks Associates will, in the next thirty days, complete a survey of consumers which will quantify how strongly consumers desire the ability to impact their energy costs. Are they willing to purchase devices and technologies that will enable elements of control and monitoring? Are they (we) willing to replace costly home systems with ones that can be controlled and programmed? Are we willing to pay service companies, perhaps including our electric utility, our broadband and phone providers, or local tradesmen to install devices with a potential payback of a year or more? These answers are critical to the growth potential of a number of emerging industries.

The market is awash with the promise of new devices from companies as diverse as Black & Decker, Google, GE and Control4 – all with the technology to monitor or control some number of home systems. Network infrastructures inside the home are rapidly maturing. Unlikely partners ZigBee and HomePlug have joined forces to develop the Smart Energy market requirements – a roadmap of sorts to suggest how wireless and wired technologies may be used to develop an in-home control network. The table is being set and the silverware polished for arrival of the Big Guests – that is, energy utilities with their Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) or Smart Grids. Analysts Bill Ablondi and Farhan Abid report that nearly 9 million AMI meters are currently installed on U.S. homes, and that Obama’s Stimulus Bill fuels the rapid deployment of Smart Grids with $11 billion in federal funding.

The Big Guests are coming to the table and will be showcasing solutions, as currently in Colorado Springs and Austin, Texas, which provide consumers with frequent feedback on energy consumption. Here is how the party will unfold; as the Smart Grid is in place, we will see first a growing number of technologies that provide in home monitoring of our home’s usage. This will be followed by introduction of smart appliances – refrigerators and water heaters which, like existing programmable thermostats for HVAC systems, can be programmed. This development will create demand for simple unified interfaces – applications that bring the control of several appliances together under an orchestrated master plan. Finally, we will see our Internet, mobile phone and even TV service providers cautiously join the party – seeking to provide control applications as extensions of the mobile phone service, or as a widget on TV, with the assumption that simpler controls will garner a few extra dollars on the monthly bill.

Unlike the current health care policy quagmire, our stimulus dollars at work combined with private enterprise will empower consumers with a growing variety of technologies to tailor energy costs to meet particular lifestyle needs.

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