One of the key problems, says John Millberg, an energy manager with the Minneapolis city government, is that many utilities don't offer tiered cost structures during the day. So even if homes were equipped with smart appliances and smart meters, there would be no incentive to do more to manage power usage than choosing between running appliances during the day or at night. Moving to a tiered structure would require a mandate from the city's public utilities commission, he says.
Texas and California are two states that do have tiered pricing. That's why Texas-based Reliant Energy started a pilot program with a few General Electric employees in Houston to try out smart appliances. Each test appliance -- including water heaters, dishwashers and clothes dryers -- has a communications module that uses the ZigBee wireless protocol, says Wayne Morrison, the manager of smart energy partnerships at Reliant, who is in charge of the pilot. The modules connect to a smart meter that reports exact usage back to the utility in real time.
If the customer allows it, the utility can automatically send a command to the appliance to run during a specific time of the day, Morrison says. (Of course, appliances have to be prepped for the automatic schedule with soap and dishes -- at least until we all have robomaids.) Reliant offers pilot customers a Web portal where they can see how much energy they used during the day and view reports about usage over a few days or weeks. The company also sends emails to let them know about their energy savings.
In the next decade, smart appliances will be able to send diagnostic information to the utility and even send a message to a repair technicians automatically, says Morrison. Some of the latest home appliances, like the Samsung RSG309 Wi-Fi Refrigerator, can use Wi-Fi over home routers today, but future models could tap into the grid directly, he says. For now, they can run apps in a touchscreen display to show things like weather forecasts, schedules of upcoming family events or recipes.
John H. Desmarais, a development manager at GE, says smart appliances can reduce energy use in a home by up to 20%. And appliances are just the start, he says: Once the U.S. adopts a widespread "smart grid" that lets utilities and homeowners access heating and cooling systems remotely, a smart thermostat, tied into the smart grid, could reduce energy use even more, since cooling and heating are responsible for 28% of home energy use.