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 percent. 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 percent of home energy use.
Desmarais envisions a day when every device in the home will connect to a smart grid. GE has developed a software platform for home energy management called Nucleus that's designed to plug into the smart grid of the future. The grid is not widespread yet, but in the meantime, there are products that take advantage of existing technologies to give people more control over when their appliances run and when they don't. For example, a company called Nest Labs offers a smart thermostat that connects to your home Wi-Fi network and lets you adjust temperature settings using an iPhone or schedule automatic temperature increases or decreases via the Web.
In the home of the future, the smart grid may connect to your appliances, your lights, your air conditioning system and the electric car in your garage. Credit: General Electric.
Unlike in Masdar -- a newly constructed metropolis where a smart grid can be implemented by fiat -- adoption of smart appliances in the U.S. likely faces a tough road, says Bob Gohn, an analyst at Pike Research. "There are a number of pieces of the puzzle that have to come together before smart appliances make sense from an energy perspective," he says -- standards need to be approved, utilities need to create tiered pricing plans, and smart meter technology needs to evolve.
The big hurdle, he says, is that a smart appliance has to integrate into a home's smart grid, called a home area network (HAN). The ZigBee standard ran into a roadblock in 2009, says Gohn, because the first iterations used a proprietary protocol, not the more standard TCP/IP.
Lately, Gohn says, ZigBee has started to adhere to standards like those being developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology that govern smart grid device interoperability and power use. The Smart Energy Profile 2.0, a set of TCP/IP-compliant standards developed by ZigBee for controlling and monitoring water and energy use in the home, is nearing approval, but Gohn says compatible devices won't be available until 2013.