Technology intended to change the way people understand and use electricity was in the spotlight Tuesday at General Electric’s Global Research Center.
The technology is at least three years away from being available to consumers, but GE is bringing together an “energy Internet” that would marry information technology devices with the nation’s electrical generation and delivery infrastructure, known as “the grid.”
The Department of Energy calls the grid the largest machine of its kind in the world, made up of more than 9,200 electric generating facilities with more than 1,000,000 megawatts of generating capacity connected to more than 300,000 miles of transmission lines.
GE says “smart” grid technology would make the existing system more reliable, responsive, and efficient — giving consumers the ability to see how much energy they are using in real time, and time their usage based on the cost, which rises during peak demand periods.
There are plenty of reasons to improve the way power is distributed, including the increasing demand for and rising cost of energy globally, an aging infrastructure and government policies that give incentives for green energy sources.
GE notes many people don’t know what their energy usage and cost is until the end of the month when they receive a bill. But the company foresees a day when utilities will send messages from the grid to a house’s power meter, enabling appliances to adjust energy usage based on peak and off-peak times and the price of energy, according to Bob Gilligan, vice president of transmission and distribution.
Energy-hungry appliances like hot water heaters, dryers and washers would essentially go into “energy-saver” mode, adjusting energy consumption based on certain grid messages.
But in order for consumers to reap the benefits and value of smart grid technology, utility providers like National Grid would first have to make a substantial investment. For instance, utilities would have to shoulder the costs of adopting and implementing the software, equipment and installation needed to use “smart metering.”
Much of the investment is being subsidized by the government already through the use of federal stimulus funds.
But in other cases, the cost could be passed along to consumers.
For example, NYSEG’s new, voluntary smart meter program currently in effect cost the utility provider $177 million, but the company has said the cost will be passed along to the company’s 1.8 million customers at an average of 32 cents a month over 20 years.
Locally, NYSEG serves about 40,000 electric customers in parts of Saratoga, Washington, Rensselaer and Columbia counties.
Garry Brown, chairman of the New York State Public Service Commission, said regulators will move quickly but cautiously as they learn from pilot projects using smart grid technology.
J. Mark Brian, manager of Home Energy Management at GE’s Appliance Park in Louisville, Ky., has been using smart grid appliances for eight months at his home as a pilot project.
So far, his energy consumption has dropped by 20 percent, and he’s been able to save $2 a month off his electric bill, he said. (Electricity is less expensive in Kentucky than in New York, he noted.)
Overall, using the smart appliances caused a bit of disruption to his family’s routine — but now washing clothes before 5 p.m. and drying them after 10 p.m. is almost second nature, he said.
“We do all the same things, just at different times.”
Brown said the Public Service Commission is actively pursuing smart grid technologies.
GE said there is a demand for thousands of applications that will be needed to satisfy consumer preferences and individual lifestyles.
A technical conference held June 11 in Albany that explored the development and deployment of smart grid technologies was attended by more than 100 people including federal officials, utility representatives and industry leaders from firms such as GE, IBM, and Verizon, Brown said.
The New York Public Service Commission is also working with utilities so that new technologies developed by third parties will be secure and safe for customers’ Internet connections and home computers containing sensitive and personal information.
The technology is so new that across-the-board standards have yet to be established — another part of the overall process that has to be figured out, according to GE officials.
GE’s new “Net Zero Energy Home” project announced Tuesday includes a home energy manager that would be become available to select consumers next year. The display includes controls that would act as a brain to manage energy usage by all of a home’s smart appliances. GE said it would also debut a line of smart thermostats next year.
GE plans to deploy smart grid technology in 20 cities by 2012.
“We’re focusing on cities because that’s where people are,” Gilligan said.
Gilligan said that 50 percent of all people live in cities, but those people consume 75 percent of the world’s energy.
Kevin Nolan, GE Consumer & Industrial vice president of technology, said new smart appliances coming to market soon would be slightly more expensive — maybe $10 to $40 more than the standard price — but would offer a substantial payback.
As utilities make the necessary investment to implement the use of smart appliances, consumers will eventually be able to buy them at Sears, Home Depot and other major retailers. But initially, GE expects many consumers will have to purchase the devices directly from utilities.
“The way we’re used to paying for power is going to change in the future,” Nolan said.