Power mad


Smart wireless technology is helping turn the tide on energy waste

When the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig started spewing crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico following a catastrophic explosion at the BP operated platform in April 2010, the world looked on in horror as an appalling environmental disaster unfolded. By the time the leak was finally contained 87 days later, the U.S. government estimated more than 4.9 million barrels—or 795 million liters—of oil had been spilled into the sea.

The environmental cost remains incalculable, but the energy cost of the spill, according to U.S. utility service provider, EnergySavvy, was, in relative terms, a drop in the ocean. To put it in context, the company said the energy contained in the biggest oil spill in U.S. history was roughly equal to the energy that just 75,000 American homes — or 0.05 percent of the estimated 127 million households in the country — waste in a single year. Echoing this finding, the U.S. Energy Administration, in 2014, the latest year for which data is available, reported that roughly a third of all energy consumed in U.S. homes was wasted.

Extrapolate the numbers out globally and the problem of lights left on, incandescent bulb use, appliances and electronic devices needlessly drawing power, and inefficiently heating and cooling our homes, to name but a few culprits, is put into sharp focus. At our current trajectory, according to the World Coal Association, coal deposits have 150 years to run. Oil, BP itself claims, will be exhausted in about 47 years. Natural gas has larger reserves, enough to last for another couple of hundred years. But one day all fossil fuels will be depleted.

New technology, in the shape of renewable energy and energy-saving devices promises to delay that day. However, that promise will only be realized if catalyzed by a fundamental change in consumer behavior.

Accelerating consumer adoption
According to Jen King, a Senior Research Analyst at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy’s (ACEEE) Buildings Program, technology is moving faster than consumer mindsets when it comes to adopting energy-saving smart home solutions. “People have been slow to adopt smart home technologies for several reasons,” King said in the ACEEE report Energy Impacts of Smart Home Technologies. “Some are just not aware of them. Even if they are, they may never have used these technologies and may view them as too complex or expensive ... current adopters tend to be tech-savvy, upper-middle-income households. To realize the full potential of smart technologies, consumer acceptance must evolve beyond early adopters and reach the broader population.”

It’s a view backed by recent research from analyst, Parks Associates. “Roughly 46 percent of U.S. broadband households currently have no intention to purchase any smart home devices,” says Patrice Samuels, Senior Analyst, Parks Associates. “Delivering on the promise of saving money is among the key factors that will drive purchase intentions among these consumers.” To prove the point, the company said of those who had invested in smart energy-saving devices, 70 percent believed the technology had helped them reduce energy consumption.

If it’s a case then of seeing is believing, then smart energy device manufacturers will need to tap into the drivers of consumer demand for this technology, foster up-take, and enable households to see the benefits for themselves through the reduction in energy use and in turn the cost savings that come with it. “The true potential for energy savings in the smart home lies in reducing energy consumption through better management,” King said in the ACEEE report. “And better management lies in optimizing our home’s energy-consuming systems. We can align their operation to our preferences and reduce unnecessary energy use. Smart technologies can yield higher overall efficiency through better controls, communication, and response ... in short, smart technologies that target major end uses can change the picture of household energy consumption.”

However, smart homes are less about individual devices than about their interaction with one another. “The key to the smart home is connectivity,” King said. “Wireless protocols—Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Zigbee, Z-Wave, Thread, and others—allow smart devices to share their status and data with one another.”

The power of connectivity
Which wireless protocol will come to dominate the smart home space for energy-saving devices is unclear; each option has inherent advantages as well as drawbacks. Wi-Fi is popular because it is already widely available in almost every home in the developed world, offers good data throughput and reasonable range, but it is power hungry. Bluetooth LE’s enormous advantage is its presence in smartphones as well as its ultra low power consumption. While range was Bluetooth LE’s Achilles heel, the arrival of Bluetooth 5 and the extended range that came with it has gone some way to addressing the issue. Zigbee is well established and effective particularly for mesh applications, but requires a gateway and offers limited throughput. Thread has been developed specifically for the smart home and is simple to install, secure, and scalable, but like Zigbee is not present in smartphones. Cellular solutions meanwhile offer range aplenty, but come with a higher price tag and a relatively higher power requirement.

“What is the perfect connectivity option? The answer is simple – it depends,” says Eirik Midttun, Technical Product Manager at Nordic Semiconductor. “The ideal choice would consume low power, have long range capability, and high bandwidth capability. Unfortunately that doesn’t exist in one solution. It’s unlikely one low power wireless protocol will win out.” And other than to chipmakers and developers, it hardly matters; the issue of wasted energy in the home is protocol-agnostic. But connectivity of some form is key.

Smart thermostats, smart lighting, smart meters, and any other smart power-saving device for the home rely on wireless connectivity to not only communicate with one another, but also to proactively communicate with the customer, and potentially, with the utility company as well. The benefits of doing so are significant.

For example, temperature, humidity, and occupancy sensors in any given room can connect wirelessly with a thermostat, in turn enabling a smart HVAC system to coordinate when and how that room is cooled or heated. Such a system reduces energy waste in unoccupied areas without the need for human intervention, or indeed fallibility, such as forgetting to turn heating or cooling on or off.

Further, real time data can be relayed to the consumer, providing them with immediate feedback on what energy is being expended by their devices, and more importantly what it’s costing them, so corrective measures can be taken and consign "bill shock" — the unwelcome arrival of an unexpectedly expensive utility bill — to history. Relaying that same data to the utility company enables service providers to offer their customers further energy-saving opportunities based on usage patterns. It is but one example of how wirelessly connected smart home devices are beginning to address the issue of home energy waste.

Smart everything
Smart appliances that can shift their operation to off-peak hours. Smart lights that automatically dim or turn off completely based on the intensity of existing natural light. Smart plugs, outlets, and power strips that can use time scheduling, motion sensing, or load detection to cut off power to devices that are not in use. Smart window blinds with wireless sensors and motors to manage the amount of solar heat entering the home and in turn adjust heating and cooling accordingly. Conventional water heaters that can be retrofitted with smart sensors and controllers that not only take advantage of off peak rates but also use AI to learn a home’s hot water usage patterns and avoid unnecessary energy waste should, for example, the home be unoccupied. Smart thermostats responding to inputs from other smart home devices or even local weather reports, to heat or cool the home according to the data it receives, or user behavior patterns it has learned.

The opportunities for smart energy devices are practically limitless, and all of it is made possible by wireless connectivity. The technology not only enables the end user to control and monitor their smart home devices from anywhere but also for the devices to share data.

“Devices with analytic capability generate copious amounts of data that can provide insight into a home’s activities,” said King. “These data create new opportunities and mechanisms for identifying equipment inefficiencies and energy wasting behaviors. Third-party solution providers have entered the smart home space to make sense of the data and engage residents in their energy use.”

The data holds value to utility providers who can use the information to engage in demand response programs; in effect a technology enabled economic rationing system for electric power supply wherein consumers are incentivized for allowing the utility company to automatically reduce their energy use during peak times of the day. For example, for consumers that have opted-in, on a particularly hot summer’s day, during peak load, the utility could remotely turn off a customer’s AC unit, or raise the temperature setting on their smart thermostat. 

Power to the people
An example of a third party solution provider in the smart home space is Currant, a California based company, which last year released its WiFi Smart Outlet. The device is a Bluetooth LE and Wi-Fi connected product which employs AI to enable users to monitor and manage their power usage, reduce energy consumption, and cut electricity costs. Any household appliance can be plugged into the device and once paired with a smartphone or tablet the product enables the user to review their energy consumption by appliance, as well as create customized rules to manage their energy usage. The Nordic SoC-powered device uses AI to recognize patterns in energy usage and suggest changes to cut down consumption. Once the device has been in operation for a week it will learn the user’s schedule, the devices that are plugged in, and the associated energy usage. Using this information — and data gathered from thousands of other devices — the partner app will recommend a schedule for appliance use to minimize energy consumption. The user has ultimate control over the schedule, which in turn enables Currant’s proprietary algorithm to continue to learn and improve.

“Some smart outlets have rudimentary energy monitoring, but none use AI to suggest schedules based on energy usage,” says Hasty Granbery, the CEO of Currant. “There are some basic handheld energy monitors that show real-time usage but don’t aggregate data over time, and there are whole house monitors that have trouble identifying specific devices, especially those that draw a small amount of idle power. [This is] the first AI-powered smart outlet to help people take control of their homes, and their energy bills.”

Another company working hard to curb power waste is Polish IIoT startup, OneMeter, which recently released its OneMeter Beacon, a device that also allows users to monitor and manage their energy usage. While currently designed for use in industrial and commercial environments, the company is looking at the domestic market and integration via Amazon Alexa, Google Home, as well as Apple HomeKit. The OneMeter Beacon is plugged in to an existing electronic electricity meter via an optical port interface, enabling the beacon to receive energy usage data from the meter using the IEC 62056-21/IEC 1107 protocol. Once installed, the beacon is paired to a smartphone or tablet using Nordic Bluetooth LE wireless connectivity, and allows the user to review the data including active and reactive energy consumption parameters, as well as daily, weekly, and monthly energy usage charts. From the accompanying OneMeter Cloud platform a company can not only monitor its metering data, but also perform accurate energy usage cost estimation, conduct effective energy audits, avoid penalties for exceeding contracted power by defining power parameter alerts, as well as manage its photovoltaic infrastructure. Certified measurement data can be shared with energy vendors enabling invoices to be settled based on actual usage instead of forecasts.

The examples of wirelessly connected smart energy saving devices are numerous and varied, but the principle in every case remains the same - knowledge is power. If technology can tell us as it happens that we are wasting energy or can save money, then it’s a technology with a huge future. As Currant CEO Granbery puts it: “Our target market is anyone who cares about reducing their energy usage, either for environmental reasons or cost-savings.” In other words, every single one of us.

New technology, in the shape of renewable energy and connected energy-saving devices, promises to keep the lights on when fossil fuels run low