Energy & Environment

Power to the People

For generations, Americans have consumed electricity in more or less the same manner. Energy flowed one way, from the power plant to the household. Consumers...
by | June 30, 2009

For generations, Americans have consumed electricity in more or less the same manner. Energy flowed one way, from the power plant to the household. Consumers paid the same rate whether demand for electricity was high or low. And the grid as a whole was vulnerable to the whims of customers. If too many people ran their air conditioners, dishwashers and computers at the same time, blackouts were all but impossible to stop.

Now, smart-grid technology is poised to reshape the way people think about and consume electricity. In the future, homes may not only consume power but also produce and store it for others to use. Consumers may program appliances to take advantage of low off-peak rates. And utilities could avoid power outages by remotely shutting down appliances in the homes of customers.

For some areas of the country, the future is already here. Xcel Energy has been outfitting several thousand homes in Boulder, Colorado, with the new technologies. The key piece is a "smart meter" capable of tracking energy consumption in real-time and communicating with both appliances in the home and the grid at large.

Miami is another test ground. Over the next two years, Florida Power & Light will install more than 1 million smart meters in buildings and homes throughout the city. The pilot, which is funded in part by federal stimulus money, will also test out appliances that can be programmed to turn on and off at certain times.

Still, despite all the investment by utilities and a push by federal officials to create a national smart network, most American homes are years away from their new relationship with the electrical grid.

The Smart Home:

o A smart meter tracks power usage by the second, communicating with household appliances and the regional grid itself to save power at home and prevent blackouts.

o A plug-in electric car recharges its batteries--or puts stored energy back on the grid for other customers to use during periods of high demand.

o Rooftop solar panels supply power for the home. Excess energy is sold back to the utility company.

o A dryer embedded with a special sensor shuts off heat when high electricity demand threatens a blackout.

o A hot water heater shuts down automatically if embedded sensors indicate the grid is strained.

o A dishwasher can be set to run only when the price of electricity is at its lowest.

o The local electric utility can remotely turn down a home's thermostat when a blackout is possible.

o Power-line sensors give utilities real-time data about the health of the grid and diagnose problems that need repair.

o A Web-based program allows homeowners to track energy usage and shut off appliances remotely.

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